Niagara-on-the-Lake: Wine, Women and Slaves

When people think of Niagara-on-the-Lake, they imagine wine tours, tastings and vineyards. Maybe strolling along the Victorian heritage district, overflowing with rustic charm from its gingerbread trimmed houses.

Black History rarely pops into the mind. Yet, a century ago Niagara-on-the-Lake had a substantial Black population. On our day trip from Toronto, we combined the best of a wine, food and Black History tour in the quaint town.

Our first stop was the Brock Monument at Queenston Heights park. We were not there to see the general poised high upon a column looking down on to the Niagara River. We were there to see the history plaque dedicated to the Coloured Corps.

Black Canadians fought in the War of 1812, helping to defeat the USA invasion. Their patriotism was based on fear. If the USA won, there was a possibility they would reintroduce slavery into Canada.

We hopped back into the minivan and drove slowly along the Niagara Parkway. The scenic road ran along the lip of a cliff. Way down below, the blue river was wide and deep, and a natural border between the two countries.

This Black Woman Made a Difference

Chole Cooley crossed that river once and was anxious not to do so again. She screamed. She fought back. She refused to be dragged down into the belly of a slave ship. A Black Canadian soldier heard her cries.

Slavery was abolished in Canada in 1793 because of Chole Cooley’s screams. The Canadian government blamed the ‘peculiar institution’ for causing the American Revolution. No slavery in Canada meant the colony was less likely to revolt, and more likely to remain loyal to Britain. One Black woman made a difference to the history of the country.

Next, we drove through the heart of the heritage district, looking for the plaque to the Negro Burial Ground. In the 1800s the Black community in Niagara-in-the-Lake was big enough to have its own church.

The burial ground was an open plot of land, with clipped grass and trees swaying in the breeze. Two gravestones stood next to the plaque. Underground, lies the bones of a few hundred Black residents.

Niagara-on-the-Lake was just one of the many Canadian termini of the Underground Railroad. Yet, the Black population of the city declined after the American Civil War. People returned to reunite their families, and to greet a new day as free men and women.

Tasting Wines

It’s never good to drink on an empty stomach. So we had lunch in a pretty restaurant in the centre of the town. We picked it based on its lively patio, filled with sun, chatter and gorgeous flower baskets. It was a good choice.

Then it was the wine tour. We meandered from the vineyard, to the underground storage vault and back to the patio for wine tasting. Tutankhamun liked wine. So did Hatshepsut, the lone female pharaoh. Both were buried with flasks of wine to ease their journey into the afterlife.

As the designated driver, I had to settle for the grape juice. In the wine store I bought my booze in the form of merlot habanero jam and pear ginger amaretto jelly.

Our final stop was the lavender farm and apothecary. It had everything lavender from oils, soaps to photographs.

The group was happy on the hour-and-a-half drive back to Toronto. The wine and lavender tours were great. But they chatted most about the Black History. They were astonished that Niagara-on-the-Lake was filled with our history.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

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Walden, Or Black Life in the Woods

Long ago, Brister and Fenda Freeman lived in the woods in Walden. Across the pond was their famous neighbour Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862). The trio met many times probably on their walks along the trail and into town. Brister went there to sell the apples from his orchard. As a fortune teller, Fenda most likely had regular customers at the town’s Saturday market.

The Freemans are just two of the Black people Thoreau mentions in his book Walden, Or Life in the Woods. I was inspired to read it by the chats and beer around the campfire, where Thoreau is often touted as a founding father of the conservation movement.

No one mentioned that he also wrote about the slaves living in the woods.

Most likely because they did not know – Thoreau is one of those writers outdoors people talk about but rarely read. On my part, I assumed that as Thoreau was white and he wrote the book to promote conservation to his kind of people, he had little to say about race. In conventional terms most white people see themselves as race-less. It is the people of colour who are raced. As my outdoors recreation group is mostly white…

In Walden, Thoreau popularised and romanticised the idea of living in a log cabin in the forest. This simple life gave one time to think, to observe and reconnect to nature. Thoreau was conscious that the wildlands were under attack from farmers, wood-choppers and turf-cutters. The wilderness was shrinking as cities grew, land was privatised and the railway expanded bringing more settlers into the forests. Thoreau argued that conservation was needed to save the wilderness both for its own sake and as spiritual refuge for humanity.

Slavery was part of the life in the woods in Walden. Thoreau describes his Black neighbours as individuals and noted how much of their lives was circumscribed by race. Cato Ingraham lived east of Thoreau’s bean field. Cato was enslaved and rumoured to be directly from Guinea. He planted walnut trees, planning that in years to come, the crop would sustain him in his old age.

Zilpha was a coloured woman who spun linen for the people in town. Living alone with her chickens and a dog, her life was hard in the woods. Zilpha’s life became tougher after her cottage was burnt to the ground by retreating soldiers. Thoreau does not mention her as a slave, implying that she was probably a free woman of colour.

Thoreau frequently mentioned Indigenous people in Walden. He noted that native crops such as corn thrived best in the soil, he admired the skills of Indigenous hunters and the grace of their canoes. Thoreau visited Canada in 1850. On his trip to Montreal, he was astonished at the extent to which French Canadians had adopted elements of Indigenous lifestyle, such as their food and clothing.

Thoreau wrote that he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the pole tax to a government that supported the buying and selling of people. The tax was paid anonymously, probably by a relative. Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist, delivering tons of lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. He was active in the Underground Railroad.

If the founding father of conservation talked so openly about race and racism, why is the modern movement is so quiet about these issues?

Is it because not much has changed in the last two centuries when it comes to social justice in the outdoors? For white people the woods are still a refuge from the stress of city life. For Black people the woods have become a place of fear. Fear of white violence against them.

Brister and Fenda, Cato and Zilpha would have understood that fear. But, they too claimed the woods as their own. It was their home.

Sailing on a Half Moon

10 Things Tourists Notice About Toronto

When I started the Black History Walks in Toronto, I assumed that my clients would be older, come dressed in linen and sun hats, and of course, wear sensible walking shoes. And most would be white.

My theory was based on the people that I see on heritage walks in the city. I stand out in these crowds of history buffs as I am younger and Black.

Well, my assumptions were plain wrong. I have had every ethnic group on the Black History Walks. There were Black people and white people. And Latinos, Arabs and Asians. To my surprise about a third of the people on the walks are Canadians, some coming from the suburbs of Toronto.

The one thing my clients have in common is a curiosity about Black history in Toronto. Most thought there was little. In the walk, we talk about an African Canadian history that goes back to 1600s, and specifically in Toronto, to 1796 when the modern city was founded on Indigenous land.

As part of the walk, I ask people what are the things that they notice about Toronto. Some of their answers were unexpected. Here are ten of the memorable ones.

1. Few Police Cars. An African American student was surprised that there were so few police cars on Toronto’s streets. In his home in Erie, Pennsylvania, police cars are on every intersection. But only in the Black areas of the city. He feels like he lives in a garrison. He was amazed that stores in Toronto accepted his credit card, without asking for other identification like his driver’s license and phone number.

2. Colonial Legacy. A woman from South Korea found it easy to move around city. The pattern of street names – King, Queen, Adelaide and so on – were the same in her travels in Australia and New Zealand. The British colonial legacy was alive in the former colonies.

3. Green City. A white woman from suburban Oakville was astonished that the city centre was so green. She had never noticed the trees in all her years of driving through Toronto. The walk goes by a ravine and several large parks.

4. Diverse City Centre. A French woman was astonished that the city centre was so multicultural. In Paris, Black people and immigrants live in the suburbs, cut off from the opportunities and vibrancy of city life. The woman now lived in a small city in Ireland. She had left France as was tired of being passed over for promotion. Her education was fine. Her performance was fine. Her skin was not.

5. Pawn Shops. The Latino couple from New York noticed the lack of pawn shop, beer stores and cheque cashing shops as we passed a sketchy area of the walk. These businesses line the streets in poor areas of their city.

6. Fearless after the Terror. A Black French woman jaywalked across the streets. She ignored my caution to wait with the rest of the group for the cross walk signal. She was dining with friends when the terrorist attacked the restaurant in Paris. She spent six hours locked inside and hiding under the tables, unsure if she would live or die. Nothing scared her after that night.

7. Blacks in the City. A student from Vancouver was astonished that so many Black people live in Toronto. Her home city is racially segregated into Chinese, South Asian and White areas. And the groups rarely mix. She felt invisible as a South Asian walking around Toronto. She liked that feeling.

8. Grave Matters. The African American friends were amazed that the graves were in the ground. In New Orleans tombs are above ground, so that they don’t float to the surface in the frequent rains and floods. Or wash up on the streets, half-rotting, like they did in Hurricane Katrina.

9. Rude Canadians. A British woman had just finished her master’s degree in Toronto. She was fed up with people asking her where she was really from. Canadians could not seem to get their heads around that Black people lived in England too.

10. Less is Better. “I feel less Black in Toronto. Nobody is looking at me and expecting trouble.” This was from an African American man, on a long weekend break from Los Angeles.

The Black History Walks are more popular than I expected. They won’t make me rich, but they supplement my tiny PhD scholarship. The walks are a good indicator of the thirst for a more inclusive history of Toronto. Black people have lived in the city from its very birth.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

A Hike in the Forest

Sunlight spilled in the forest, highlighting the trees craning their necks to reach the golden god.

Songs flirted in the air, the melody sung by a rose-breasted grosbec, the rhythm set by a woodpecker. More voices joined the chorus, warbling a lullaby of life.

I stopped, spread my arms wide, raised my head to the sky. I wanted to dance, to celebrate the joy of life.

Common sense won. A Black woman shaking her backside, and dreadlocks, to her own inner music in the woods, could be a runaway. From the asylum. Or a voodoo priestess awakening the ancient spirits. In either case, she was up to no good.

Damn the double–consciousness. This sense of ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.’ Limiting one’s activity to fit convention. Just in case…

A shadow flickered in the corner of my eye. My smile was as wide as the ocean as a deer pranced by. I bowed my head and thanked the ancient ones for this gift of life.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Birding While Black

The flock of birdwatchers meandered along the trail in the meadows. Suddenly they stopped. Binoculars raised, the group scanned the copse of trees on the left. Someone softly called out a yellow warbler. The birders drifted along, stopping and starting when a new bird was seen or heard.

There was a rare bird among the birders. Me. A Black woman participating in an activity that is almost exclusively white. I raised my binoculars too and spotted the great blue heron flitting above the tree line. A turkey vulture did lazy circles high in the blue-less sky.

Outdoor recreation is a racialized hobby. Whites do it. Blacks don’t. Birding fits that general pattern as almost ninety per cent of birders are non-Black. In general, birdwatchers are middle-aged, have high income and education, and appeals to slightly more women than men.

It does not cost much to start off as a birder. It’s enough to borrow a field guide to local birds from the library. And that’s it. If one gets hooked, the next real cost is buying your own book and a pair of binoculars. For about $100 one is now set up as birder. That’s about the same costs of buying a pair of sexy sandals or running shoes. Cost is not a barrier to birdwatching as it is to so many other outdoor recreation activities.

Skill is not a barrier either. I can confidently identify about thirty birds, starting with the common ones that I see daily in the city streets such as gulls, pigeons and starlings. In the large ponds in the parks it’s the swan, Canada geese and the squawking red-wing black birds. The more one stands still, look, and listen, the more birds seems to be flying, perching or hopping about.

Race is a factor in birding. A scan of the ornithological clubs in Toronto has lots of images of birds. And of white people. The human images do not get more colourful in the USA or in Britain. So why don’t Black people get into birding?

For a start we never see ourselves in birding ads, books and magazines. This creates two problems. The first is a negative feedback loop, as if you don’t see or know someone like yourself, doing an activity you are less likely to try it. Second, the birding media – just like the rest of the outdoor recreation folks – has created a visual apartheid implying that Black people are not wanted in that space, as they are always absent from it.

I always feel a little self-conscious when out alone on a birding walk. Really, I do not want to join another nerd club!  Wearing hiking boots, a safari hat, and with binoculars dangling from around my neck, people do wander what I am up to. I am out looking at birds, but sometimes you see strange things in the parks. A birder told me to be careful once. She had seen a flasher in the bushes. And it was not a bird.

In birding groups, my racial radar is always turned on. As the sole Black person in the group, I am half waiting for a question on where am I really from, are my dreadlocks real hair or a negative comment about ‘them.’ It’s not paranoia, it’s simply the reality of my Black experience.

I met another Black woman on a birding hike. Two of us. That is as rare as a phoenix. Dr. Drew Lanham is an African American ornithologist. In his experience, he expects to meet a fellow Black birder once every two decades or so. When I first read his statistics, I thought he was simply wrong. Then I reflected on my experience dabbling in birding. He was right.

Birding organizations can start a revolution. Simply putting Black people their ads will catch everyone’s attention. Birding – cheap, easy and done in the city – could be a gateway to getting people of colour into the conservation and environmental movements. Black birders want to fly too.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London