By BARRINGTON A. MORRISON
During the 1850s, in Upper Canada (Ontario), the sons and daughters of former slaves were forced to attend separate schools as a result of a process of segregation that was the continental norm. According to Robin Winks in his book, Blacks in Canada: A History: “In January of 1846 Isaac J. Rice wrote to the Superintendent of Education Egerton Ryerson stating that rather than send their offspring to school with n*****s they will cut their children’s head off and throw them into the road side ditch.”
Ryerson suggested that the Negroes be given separate school privileges because of the intensity of the prejudice directed against them in some quarters.
In some localities the escaped slaves who were supposedly free in Canada persisted in their attempts to gain admittance for their children to publicly funded schools and in some cases, sympathetic White representatives would occasionally speak out on their behalf.
According to Winks: “In 1862 a long-term trustee from Harwich, near Chatham, resigned in anger because the local school, once fifty pupils strong, had declined to two Whites and seven Blacks, as the White parents removed their children in the face of Negro enrollment.”
There were other members of the White community who had opposite views from the trustee in Harwich. Winks further elaborates: “Some Whites felt that their children’s morals would be harmed by association with Negroes recently escaped from slavery.”
They believed that this kind of race mixing was contrary to God’s law. In Chatham all Black students were excluded from public schools and were assigned to a Separate school whether they lived within the vicinity or not.
The Legislation and Black Schools in Upper Canada:
Every race has a soul, and the soul of that race finds expression in its institutions, and to kill those institutions is to kill the soul… No people can profit or be helped under institutions which are not the outcome of their own character.
Edward Blyden, 1903.
In his submission to the legislature for the establishment of Separate Schools for coloured children in Upper Canada (Ontario), Egerton Ryerson reported that although he had “exerted all the power I possessed, and employed all the persuasion I command…the prejudice and feelings of the people are stronger than the law”.
The provision for Separate Schools was introduced into the School Law in 1841 and continued into each of the four School Acts of 1843, 1846, 1847, and 1850. The Act of 1850 underwent the most careful scrutiny, revision and vehement opposition. The parties involved engaged in unprecedented polarized political passions and sectarian animosities because for the first time in pre-confederation history, Separate Schools for Black Children (at the time called Colored Children) would be given formal legal status on par with the Protestant and Roman Catholic denominations.
The historical significance of Section 19 of the Common School Act of Upper Canada 1850, that authorized the formal legal establishment of Black schools necessitated extensive discourse not only for the magnitude of its historicity, but for an unflattering indictment of past wrongs and an impassioned plea for Canada to educate all Canadians, Black and White equitably. Section 19 of the Common School Act states:
“And be it enacted, that it shall be the duty of the Municipal Council of any Township, and of the Board of School Trustees of any city, Town or incorporated Village, on the application in writing of twelve or more resident heads of families, to authorize the establishment of one or more separate schools for Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Colored people, and, in such case, it shall prescribe the limits of the divisions or sections for such schools, and shall make the same provision for the holding of the first meeting for the election of Trustees for each such separate school or schools, as is provided in the fourth section of this Act for holding the first school meeting in a new school section: Provided always, that each such separate school shall go into operation at the same time with alterations in school sections, and shall be under the same regulations in respect to the persons for whom such school is permitted to be established, as are Common Schools generally: Provided secondly, that none but Colored people shall be allowed to vote for the election of Trustees of the separate school for their children, and none but the parties petitioning for the establishment of, or sending children to a separate Protestant or Roman Catholic school, shall vote at the election of Trustees of such school: Provided thirdly, That each such separate Protestant or Roman Catholic, or Colored school, shall be entitled to share in the school fund according to their average attendance of pupils attending each such separate school, (the mean attendance of pupils for both summer and winter be taken), as compared with the whole average attendance of pupils attending the Common Schools in such City, Town, Village or Township.”
The Act authorized the Black community with 12 families or more to apply in writing to the local public school trustees to establish their own school(s), and share equally in the funding with the Protestant and Roman Catholic schools according to the number of students in attendance. In 1851, the King Street Public School of Amherstburg was opened under the Common School Act of 1850 to serve the educational needs of the Black community, and the first teacher, J. Underwood, was a Black male.
According to Winks: “There were other schools in different areas of Ontario for Black children including, those in Windsor, Dresden, Buxton, Sandwich, Anderdon, Gosfield, Malden, Colchester, Chatham, and Simcoe, these were the best of the lot.”
It is important to note that this Act demonstrates the perseverance and resilience of the enslaved Africans to triumph over the many widespread human privation, oppression and obstacles placed in their path to hinder their capacity to make informed choices in order to change their reality.