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Digitally preserving ‘The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth’ 

Submitted on Thursday, February 27, 2020

Tonya Sutherland (centre) presents on Emancipation Day at the Ontario Black History Society with fellow members of the Jackson Park Project,  Audra Gray (left) and and Catherine MacDonald.

Museum Studies student Tonya Sutherland is working to create a digital archive that will preserve the memories and history of Emancipation Day, an annual event that put the city of Windsor, Ontario on the civil rights map. Building on the small celebrations already taking place, Windsor’s citizens decided in 1932 that they wanted to do something bigger to commemorate Emancipation Day, which marks the abolition of slavery in the British Empire on August 1, 1834.

Over the years, Windsor’s celebrations grew and thrived, attracting leading civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Adam Clayton Powell and Eleanor Roosevelt. At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, Windsor’s Emancipation Day festivities stretched over several days and drew hundreds of thousands of people from across North America to the city’s Jackson Park venue. Motown stars, like Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations, crossed the Detroit River to perform at the park.

While the event lost steam as both society and the civil rights movement were transformed in the late 1960s, Emancipation Day has recently been brought back to life by Windsor citizens and history buffs. At the same time, a group of Toronto women have been working on both a documentary series and potential drama series about Emancipation Day during its heyday.

The group enlisted the help of second year Museum Studies student, Tonya Sutherland, to research the history of Emancipation Day and develop a digital archive so that people beyond Windsor can learn about the Day that came to be known as The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth.

Sutherland is also using her research for her Museum Studies capstone project.