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African Diaspora Newsletter No.9

The Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora
presents a workshop on The Underground Railroad
and the History of Blacks in Upper Canada

February 21, 2003, Founders College, York University


In commemoration of Black History Month, the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora is pleased to invite students, teachers, scholars, museum curators and the interested public to a workshop on the Underground Railroad and the teaching of Black history in Canada, to be held in Founders College at York University. The workshop aims to bring together students and other interested participants from a variety of sectors to discuss issues relating to the Underground Railroad in Canada and the way in which the role of Blacks in Canada is taught in Ontario schools as well as its universities. The Workshop is intended to advance the development of research and teaching tools that focus upon the experiences of peoples of African descent in Canada.

The workshop will take place in Founders College Assembly Hall, Room 152A

Pre-registration, Nadine Hunt - nhunt@yorku.ca or (416) 736-2100 ext. 66908

The Workshop is sponsored by Founders College, the Department of History, the Faculty of Arts, and the Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History

The problem being addressed at this workshop is the historic role of the descendants of Africans in Upper Canada before Confederation. The settlement of Blacks can be traced to two phenomena, first, emigration from the United States after the War of Independence, and secondly, emigration via the so-called Underground Railroad by refugees from slavery and oppressive racial laws in the United States, especially after the passage of the US Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. This neglected subject highlights the importance of human rights issues in the early settlement of Upper Canada, and the role that refugees played in the economic and social development of the country. The topic is relevant to the descendants of this Black community of refugees, and more widely to people of African descent in North America who are interested in the history of resistance to slavery and racism, and beyond these groups to others interested in the multicultural and varied background of the Canadian population. An understanding of the role of Blacks in Upper Canada is important in the study of the dispersal of African peoples in the Americas, and the role of Upper Canada in that history. Black settlement in Upper Canada was part of the wider African diaspora in this period, and to understand the context, the focus is on the links between Upper Canada and the Caribbean as well as the United States. The social benefits that arise from understanding this history relate to the advancement of knowledge, but also to the issue of race in the context of international, national, provincial and local concerns. Individuals want to know the genealogy of the Black community for personal reasons, and students and the public at large need to be aware of the research that underlies an understanding of the Black role in Ontario.

The workshop's focus will be to discuss how it is possible to achieve a better understanding of the issue of Blacks in Upper Canada before Confederation, and hence how interested scholars and students can contribute to public policy debates through an increase in public awareness of the importance of human rights issues in the settlement of Upper Canada, particularly as a place of sanctuary from the USA. Through such public institutions as the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora, Black Creek Pioneer Village, the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, and other libraries, museums and archives, it is possible to coordinate diverse aspects of intervention, action, program delivery and policy formation, through an investment in new knowledge. The suggestion is to use the tools and methods of the digital age to gather information to develop the best strategies to combat racism and ignorance that are appropriate to our rapidly changing times. The partner organizations, including the Tubman Centre, Buxton and Black Creek, represent major sources of expertise and innovation that are founded on front-line experience. The faculty at York University and selected scholars elsewhere offer breadth and depth of knowledge and skills in the social sciences and humanities disciplines, which, taken together, can provide experience for implementing a successful program of research. Hence collaboration and partnership are a means to a commonly desired end, as reflected in the aims of not only the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre, the Buxton Museum and Black Creek Pioneer Village, but also Simcoe County Library and Museum, Sojourner Truth Training Center at Adrian College, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, the Text and Testimony Collective at the University of the West Indies (Mona), and the UNESCO Slave Route Project. The extension to Parks Canada, the National Park Service of the USA, and other organizations is logical. Together and separately, these institutions and others are assembling new knowledge and capabilities in key areas relating to early settlement in Upper Canada, and this information inevitably allows the sharpening of research priorities in issues of human rights, provides new research training opportunities for students and members of the community, and thereby enhances the ability of social sciences and humanities research to meet the needs of Canadian communities in the midst of change.

One of the goals of the workshop is to promote a community-university alliance in the study of Blacks in Upper Canada, which, through a process of ongoing collaboration and mutual learning, will foster innovative research, training and the advancement of knowledge in areas of importance for the social, cultural and economic development of Ontario and Canada at large. The aim is to share knowledge, resources and expertise between universities and organizations in the community to expand research, to improve teaching methods and curricula in universities and secondary schools; to reinforce community decision-making and problem-solving capacity; and to enhance the education and employability of students by means of diverse opportunities to build their knowledge, expertise and work skills through hands-on research and related experience.

The Workshop is organized around three roundtable discussions led by experts in the field. The first Roundtable will discuss the research agenda for the study of the Underground Railroad in Upper Canada, and the broader issue of the history and role of Blacks in Upper Canada before Confederation in 1867. A second Roundtable will discuss technical issues relating to the conduct of research in a digital age and the methodological issues arising from the collection and analysis of data in forms that amount to "new knowledge" because of the voluminous quantity of information and the ways in which that information is accessed and understood. The third Roundtable will address the issue of how to "deliver" the new information to the classroom and beyond. These aims will have little effect if there is not a mechanism for the transference of new knowledge into the curricula and programs of primary and secondary schools, universities, and museums. Hence an important feature of the Workshop is the discussion of "delivery" and therefore includes an examination of the materials available through the Harriet Tubman Resource Centre on the African Diaspora and elsewhere on this website (www.yorku.ca/nhp).

Department of History, York University,  Toronto, Canada
Email: nigerian@yorku.ca
Fax: (416) 650-8173