Black history’s Great Lakes connections on display

Debora Van Brenk // Western News

An excerpt from a letter that advises anti-slavery voters to lobby for abolitionist candidates, regardless of party. The letter is on display at The D.B. Weldon Library during Black History Month in February.

The slave life of the boy who renamed himself Jermain Wesley Loguen was filled with deprivation and abuse. His escape to Canada was equally harrowing.

His hopes for finding a new life here – in what he’d believed would be freedom’s promised land – were thwarted by a society determined to keep him from success.

“He gets here and is sort of shocked by the lack of opportunity he finds,” said PhD student Ariana Potichnyj. “The way I was taught Canadian history in mandatory Grade 10 history, we were taught Canada was an oasis or paradise for enslaved people escaping slavery. But that wasn’t necessarily the case.”

Potichnyj is one of about a dozen English and Writing Studies graduate students who prepared an exhibit at The D.B. Weldon Library highlighting published writings by African-American and African-Canadian authors with a connection to the Great Lakes region on both sides of the border.

Part of the Western Library Archives and Special Collections, the writings range from newspapers and pamphlets to autobiographies and biographical novels written from about 1790-1890. Students used them to highlight transnational conversations that took place during that time.

Loguen, born Jarm Logue, started the Canadian side of his journey in Amherstburg and moved steadily eastward through Ontario, recording his journeys in letters that eventually became his memoir, The Narrative of Rev. J.W. Loguen.

“He says in his letters there is dissention and division and lack of community. You read it, and it kind of breaks your heart because he’s thriving as best he can – but part of the success he’s looking for is to find a place he belongs and he really doesn’t feel that way,” Potichnyj said.

Intent on creating a life that would make him whole, he eventually moved back across the border to Syracuse, where he became a prominent abolitionist, educator and bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

(Loguen, famously, also penned a scathing response to his former master’s widow when she demanded ­– 30 years after his escape – that he return to her to be sold, as she was short on funds.)

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsEnglish and Writing Studies PhD student David Mitterauer reads a handwritten letter from the Anti-Slavery Association of New York as fellow graduate students assemble materials for a display at The D.B. Weldon Library for Black History Month in February.

English and Writing Studies professor Alyssa MacLean, supervisor of the research projects, said, “We’re looking at how the Great Lakes region became a nexus of black intellectualism and writing.”

It’s important to recognize prominent thinkers and writers of the time often travelled back and forth across the Canada-U.S. border: for freedom, safety, advocacy and to earn a living.

“The way that we’ve studied black history, we’ve created artificial (geographical) divisions. It’s almost as if we’ve forgotten how mobile they were.”

The students researched not just the authors’ writings but their context and lives, as well.

PhD student David Mitterauer commented that it’s important to know these authors and intellectuals had complex lives, beyond their escape stories.

“In our historiography, the story often ends when they arrive into liberation. The texts we can find are sometimes limited. But we find a lot of things of the lives they lived after their escapes, including how they made their living. These are bits of information that add up to an important whole.”

He was intrigued by a handwritten letter he found in the Archives, written by the Anti-Slavery Society of New York in Rochester.

It advised readers to lobby for abolition, regardless of party affiliation: “Our strength, yea, our invincibility will be found to consist, in first sacrificing our partisan predilections on the altar of humanity and then holding ourselves entirely aloof from both the political parties. Our Motto should be, ‘form alliances with no political party, but enstamp our principles upon all.”

Other stories highlighted in the display include that of William Mallory, born a slave, who made a dramatic escape and eventually settled in Hamilton. There, he opened a straw, hay and wood business, wrote Old Plantation Days as both an autobiography and book of poetry and embedded himself as a well-loved figure until his death in 1907.

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsEnglish and Writing Studies PhD student Ariana Potichnyj examines an autobiography by Rev. J.W. Loguen, part of a display of 18th-Century African-American and African-Canadian writing at The D.B. Weldon Library during Black History Month in February.

Individual stories bring the history into sharp focus, said PhD student Katrina Younes. “Sometimes we get caught up in getting the big picture – the summary of things, the general themes. But working with a concentrated piece of text and being told through their voice what their lives were and how they would like to be presented, that’s important,” she said.

Masters student Stephanie Mason said reading a contemporary biography Harriet Tubman highlighted for her the strength and presence of the Underground Railroad hero as it “described the adversity, the terrors of having to move between these spaces of danger.”

In celebration of Black History Month, the exhibit on the main floor of Weldon continues through to the end of February.