Breaking Historical Stereotypes
by Angie Littlefield
My father almost beaned me with a baseball bat when I was thirteen. I had returned home early from a trip to Detroit because my hostess and her family had failed to show up at the bus station to collect me. I arrived back home in the middle of the night. They weren’t expecting me back for a week, so the porch light wasn’t on. I was fumbling in the dark with the door to open it with my key when my father appeared with a baseball bat, my mother behind him egging him on to get the intruder. Luckily, they recognized me in time!
What remained with me about that trip, in addition to the near braining, was the sight of a black person getting on the bus as we neared Detroit. I had never seen a black person in the flesh and stared at him in a most inappropriate fashion. The man also had acne, the terror of teenagers. How awful! I thought. My reaction was fueled by the total lack of visibility of black people in small-town Canada in the 1960s. Not only were they missing from most communities nearby where I lived, but they were also a non-presence on television and in our schoolbooks (except as slaves). My first introduction to black people were images in National Geographic magazine—dark-skinned, primitive people in hot environments far away.
We have come a long way since the sixties, and new stories every year expand our understanding of black history. A few examples that I can recall include Matthew Alexander Henson, Thomas Henry Miller and the Buffalo Solders of our American military. Although there are hundreds and thousands of brave, intelligent and pioneering Black Americans I will take the liberty to comment on a few.
On a trip to Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost province, I once turned up one such story. Several books, including a memoir (A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, 1912), chronicle the life of black American arctic explorer Matthew Alexander Henson of Maryland. There are variations on the story, but in most, Henson is now credited as being the first person at (or at least in close proximity to) the North Pole during his voyage there in 1909 with Robert Peary (the leader of the expedition—white, of course—and the man formerly credited with being the first person to reach the North Pole). Less well known is that Henson’s only child was his Inuit son, Ahnahkaq Henson. In June 1987, Ahnahkaq Henson, together with five of his sons and Peary’s Inuit son, Karree Peary, visited Matthew Henson’s grave in Arlington Cemetery. Ahnahkaq Henson died at his home in Greenland three weeks later at the age of 80, leaving behind 23 grandchildren.
I discovered another nugget of black history while looking for stories on America’s Buffalo Soldiers. While there were several black regiments during the Civil War, the Buffalo Soldiers (a name coined by their Native American foes) was the first peacetime black regiment in the U.S. Army, formed in 1866 under the Army Organization Act, which deployed six all-black cavalry and infantry regiments to help control the Native Americans on the Plains. They were also to deter cattle rustlers and protect settlers, stagecoaches, wagon trains, and railroad workers.
Less well known is that Company L of the Buffalo Soldiers formed Alaska’s first all-black baseball team in May 1900. They were part of a league that pitted the cities of Skagway, Juneau, and Bennett against one another in hotly contested play. The black soldiers also joined the Skagway Baptist Church, where they formed a “colored” Sunday school, a singing quartet, and an instrumental quartet.
The story of Reverend Thomas Henry Miller highlights another relatively unknown aspect of black history. Miller was born in 1813 in Maryland, the son of an American slave, but escaped the U.S. and came to Owen Sound, Ontario, where, in 1851, he began ministering informally to a group of black settlers (including other former slaves) in Owen Sound in 1851. This group formally became a British Methodist Episcopal congregation in 1856. What many Americans still don’t seem to realize is that Canada, not the northern U.S. states, was the ultimate destination for black people fleeing slavery in the U.S. using the Underground Railroad. The British Empire, of which Canada was then a part, had abolished slavery formally in 1833 (though it had been banned in Canada through court cases much earlier). Owen Sound as it happens, was the northernmost terminus of the Underground Railroad, 118 miles north of Toronto.
Matthew Henson, the Buffalo Soldiers, and Reverend Miller give the lie to the stereotypes acquired by those like myself who only saw National Geographic images as we grew up. Black History Month shows us that black people such as these men were leaders and community builders, but have gotten little credit for either.
Photo credit by: Elizeu Dias (Brazil) @elishavisioon
Angie Littlefield is an author, curator, educator, and editor. She has written three books about Canadian artist Tom Thomson, the most recent of which is Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends. Her eclectic interests include curating art exhibits in Canada and Germany and working with children from Nunavut and Tristan da Cunha to produce their books. Her other books include Ilse Salberg: Weimar Photographer, Angelika Hoerle: Comet of Cologne Dadaists, and The Art of Dissent: Willy Fick. She co-created www.readingandremembrance.ca, a website with lesson packages for Ontario educators. Angie lives in Toronto, Canada.