For local elementary school administrator Gary Pieters, it was a week well spent in a classroom setting during his summer vacation.
He was one of 27 professional educators from Canada and the United States who attended a summer institute at York University that explored the history of the North American anti-slavery movement and Canada’s role as the main terminus of the Underground Railroad, which was a critical component of the broader struggle waged against slavery.
The educators, which included 14 Canadians, explored some of the early history and mythology of the movement and the ways these have come to be questioned in the last few decades, as well as some of the true stories of individuals who risked their lives for freedom.
“I decided to enroll in the course because I believe that teaching African-Canadian and African-American history is extremely important,” said Pieters, who is also the president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. “Not enough attention is given in the curriculum to this early period of migration because teachers don’t have the resources and professional development to confidently teach the subject in the classroom.”
As part of the course, the educators visited Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site & Museum in Dresden, Chatham’s Black Mecca Museum & Archives and the Buxton Museum & Historic Site.
“We were able to see some of the replicas and remnants that have been preserved,” said Pieters. “That was quite fulfilling.”
Sponsored by York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute, Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Centre, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, the institute provided workshops that engaged participants with members of the African-Canadian descendant communities of Southwestern Ontario and offered in the context of churches, schools and community museums evocative of the achievements of African-American refugees who found new homes in Canada in the years before the American Civil War.
“Overturning some of the myths of the Underground Railroad was one of the main objectives of this program,” said Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost, the senior research fellow for African-Canadian Studies at the Harriet Tubman Institute and the Bicentennial Visiting Professor for Canadian Studies at Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Centre. “We also wanted to show a lot of original documents, introduce the educators to a lot of real people and also teach them how to go about finding material that they can use in their classrooms. We provided useable information that is translatable for children and the teachers created a curriculum package based on the information they received.”
Veta Tucker, an associate professor of English & African-American Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids Michigan, assisted with the course presentation.
“This institute was very important because American teachers get a certain portion of the story that stops at the U.S. border and the fugitives just kind of drop off in the water,” said Tucker, who collaborated with Dr. Smardz Frost on a soon-to-be released edited volume, A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance & the Underground Railroad along the Detroit River Borderland.
“So to put a transnational approach together where we look at where these fugitives ended up in Canada gives the final leg of the story and it also talks about the return of some of the African-Americans who stayed in Canada and came back to the USA. So we get this real cross-border inter-penetration and we begin to see there was a much closer contact and communication between African-Americans and African-Canadians at that time which could perhaps presage some new ideas and new thinking about how we could reconnect in those ways today.”
Gilder Lehrman Teacher seminars span a range of historical topics, ranging from colonial times to the present. Led by eminent historians, the seminars are held at major educational and historical institutions and feature content that is intellectually rich and academically rigorous.
“We do about 40 of them across the United States and England each year,” said the institute’s American History senior education fellow, Steven Schwartz. “This particular seminar presented to teachers on both sides of the border knowledge of what’s going on between the two countries at this critical period of time and, as the teachers have reminded us over the week, the long-term influence that’s taking place in terms of racial relations in both countries.
“It was tremendously important that they were able to understand why African-Americans fled to Canadian communities. We simply do not learn that. It’s absolutely true that the story stops at the border. On the other hand, we want to make sure that Canadian teachers also recognize the importance of the pressures that drove this huge population of people who had contributed to Canada. This week has made a major impact upon that knowledge base among people who are going to go back and cement that knowledge.”