Tonya Sutherland first got involved in the historic research that would end up being her Museum Studies capstone project shortly before she began her Master’s program. She and two other volunteer researchers took a trip to Windsor to learn more about how the city celebrated Emancipation Day, an annual event that put Windsor on the civil rights map back in the 1950s and 1960s.
Building on earlier, smaller festivities, Windsor citizens, some of whose ancestors had arrived from the U.S. on the Underground Railroad, 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.
Their vision became a reality. Over the years, Windsor’s Emancipation Day grew and thrived, attracting leading civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Adam Clayton Powell and Eleanor Roosevelt. “These celebrations were some of the biggest in North America but they didn’t remain in people’s consciousness,” says Sutherland. “It’s a bit of a shame how they’ve been mostly forgotten.”
At their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, the city’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. But as both society and the civil rights movement were transformed in the late 1960s, Windsor’s Emancipation Day lost steam.
Recently, however, there’s been a revival of interest thanks to the efforts of Windsor citizens and local history buffs. At the same time, Sutherland and two other women from the GTA – retired teacher Catherine MacDonald and actor and producer Audra Gray – began trying to bring the story to a wider audience beyond Windsor.
Working under the umbrella of the Jackson Park Project, named for the park where the Emancipation Day celebrations were held, Sutherland’s goal is to create a digital archive of historical material. MacDonald is aiming to created educational resources for use in classrooms that would be hosted by the digital archive while Gray wants to produce a drama television series based on the annual festivities as well as a documentary, which would chronicle both the team’s behind-the-scenes journey and a proposal before parliament to formally recognize Emancipation Day nationally.
“Audra was watching TV one day and came across this documentary, The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth. It was a larger history of Emancipation Day, somewhat focused on Windsor, but with a broader view,” says Sutherland. “She wondered why she had never heard of it”
Thinking it a story worth dramatizing, Gray linked up with MacDonald, her former teacher who was also interested in Canada’s black history scene. MacDonald’s husband mentioned the project to his co-worker, Sutherland’s father, who in turn told his daughter about it.
“I tend to get really invested in the personal element of history,” says Sutherland who graduated from UofT with an undergrad degree in English and History in 2016. That interest caused her friends to suggest she might want to check out the Faculty of Information’s Museum Studies. The idea resonated with Sutherland, who had also been inspired watching Mysteries at the Museum and seeing people handling artefacts with white gloves. She thought it might be something she would like to do, and after two years of working in customer service type jobs, she was ready for a change.
During their first research trip to Windsor in May 2018, Sutherland, MacDonald and Gray spent a whole week researching and filming. Irene Moore Davis, President of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, shared a wealth of information with the visitors. “While we say this is a history that’s not known to a broader audience, people from Windsor, whose families were involved, are very aware,” said Sutherland. “Irene has been really key to our project because she has quite a large collection of family history including boxes of documents. Her family was very involved in Emancipation Day.”
While in Windsor, Sutherland visited the University of Windsor archives, looked at hundreds of photographs, and examined the programs printed annually, which typically included a letter from the Mayor of Windsor and sometimes featured messages from prominent speakers. “From magazines, you could see who was buying ad space and supporting the celebrations,” she said, adding that these documents helped with primary research.
Over the past two years, she’s been digitizing materials as part of her capstone project and with the goal of creating a permanent digital archive. “I’ve learned all the things that go into creating an archive and a digital archive,” she says. “The more I learn the more it teaches me what I don’t know.”
That goes for Black Canadian history as well as archives, says Sutherland, who adds that Canadians don’t really know what became of the people that arrived in places like Windsor via the Underground Railroad. “Was everything amazing? Did they face racism and struggle?”
The holes in our knowledge “speak to a larger unknowing,” she says. “This whole thing has been extremely eye opening to me.”
MacDonald says the history of Windsor’s Emancipation Day is perfect for teaching because it is so multi-faceted. “It’s the story of Canada and the Black diaspora. It’s the story of English and French. The story of Canada and the U.S. It’s the story of two cities.”
Black Families were often divided between Detroit and Windsor with cousins walking across the frozen Detroit River in winter and holding large family get-togethers at Emancipation Day events in summer. A Detroit historian, Kimberly Simmons, has spent more than a decade trying to get the Detroit River declared a UNESCO World Heritage site for the role it played in the underground railroad.
Meanwhile Sutherland, MacDonald and Gray continue to move forward on their Windsor projects. The teaser for Gray’s documentary debuted last summer at Emancipation Day. MacDonald is working with local Black educators, members of Windsor’s Black historical society and the Ontario Black History Society to produce lesson plans. And Sutherland has produced a digital archive feasibility report as her capstone project in Museum Studies.
While Covid-19 has caused the cancellation of this year’s Emancipation Day Festival in Windsor, behind the scenes the work continues. “We’re now trying to seek out and establish viable and more stable sources of funding,” says Sutherland, who will continue to work on the Jackson Park Project as a Museum Studies graduate.