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  • Gender Ideology and Black Women as Community-Builders in Ontario, 1850–70
  • Shirley J. Yee

Elizabeth Jackson Shadd Shreve was known to Blacks in Buxton, Ontario, as an energetic Christian woman who "travelled about, on horseback, through the bush, and over roads almost impassable at times, ministering to the sick, collecting and delivering food and clothing for the needy, and preaching the Gospel."1 Anecdotal references to individual Black women, such as the one above, tell a great deal about the material and spiritual contributions Black Canadian women made to their communities. Although scholars of Canadian women's history have long acknowledged the need to develop the diverse histories of racial minorities in Canada, they have just begun to uncover the richness of Black Canadian women's historical experiences.2 [End Page s615]

The purpose of this essay is to explore the possibilities for developing a collective history of Black women in Canada, beginning with southern Ontario in the mid-nineteenth century, a critical place and time in the history of Black Canadian settlement. Black Canadian women's experiences as community-builders challenged simplistic notions of "true" womanhood as they struggled to survive and construct family and community institutions, such as churches, schools, and benevolent organizations.

The status of early Black migrants to Canada varied. Some had been born free, others had been freed by their masters or had escaped. Some travelled alone, others in small groups. In some cases, whole Black church congregations moved to Canada.3 They set up communities at principal stops on the Underground Railroad: Chatham, Windsor, Amherstburg, and Sandwich. Some had brought with them enough capital to begin farms or businesses. The vast majority, however, were escaped slaves who had arrived destitute, a transient population in want of the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter, and employment.4 In 1850 Black educator and abolitionist Mary Bibb wrote that hundreds of fugitive slaves arrived in Sandwich every day.5

Between the 1830s and 1850s a number of factors facilitated the resettlement of Blacks in Canada: Britain's formal abolition of slavery in the empire in 1833, the enforcement of hitherto dormant Black codes in the northern United States, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.6 These events exacerbated growing frustration with white-led abolitionism, which had, since the 1830s, struggled unsuccessfully to abolish slavery and racism. Black leaders who supported separatism from white organizations sought to nurture the development of independent Black communities both in and outside the United States. Convinced that there was little hope for eliminating racial oppression in the United States, Blacks who already supported voluntary Black emigration to Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, and Africa stepped up their campaigns after 1850.7 [End Page s616]

The mobility of Black immigrants and the myths and legends that have enshrouded the Underground Railroad have made it difficult to pin down accurate population statistics on Canadian Blacks. Eyewitness accounts often exaggerated the number of Blacks who actually made it to Canada. Manuscript census reports, beginning with the first Canadian census in 1851, provide official data on Black women, children, and men.8 Impressionistic accounts by visitors to Canada, muster rolls, letters, newspapers, and church membership records provide population estimates as well as information about daily life. Such sources reveal that until the 1860s, Black men outnumbered Black women who migrated to Canada.9 Women were often pregnant and/or encumbered with young children, which made the trek slow and more dangerous than if men travelled alone or with other adults. Samuel Gridley Howe, agent for the United States Freedman's Inquiry Commission, noted in the 1850s that "the refugees were mostly men; and to this day, the males are most numerous, because women cannot so easily escape."10 By 1850 the sex ratio of Black immigrants had begun to even out. The Canadian census counted 2502 Black males and 2167 Black females in Upper Canada in 1851, by then called Canada West. Unofficial accounts recorded significant increases in the total Black population during the next two years. In 1851 and 1852, approximately 25,000 to 30,000 Blacks resided in Canada.11 Throughout the decade, the numbers of Blacks increased. Canadian historian Fred Landon...


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