York University Students Shine at Buxton's 15th Annual US/Canadian History & Genealogy Conference

York University Students Shine at  Buxton's 15th Annual US/Canadian History & Genealogy Conference

Sponsored by the S.P.A.C.E Initiative of The Harriet Tubman Institute, York University & the Buxton Historical Society, the 15th Annual US/Canadian History & Genealogy Conference held on Friday August 31, 2012 was yet again a successful and educational experience.


Kimberly Simmons, President and Executive Director of the Quarlls Watkins Heritage Project, was the first speaker of the day. Her organization is devoted to the teaching of the Underground Railroad legacy, by recognizing the significance of the Underground Railroad as the beginning of the American civil rights movement. As a descendant of Caroline Quarlls, one of the first passengers on Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad, Simmons stressed the importance of non-embellishment regarding the re-telling of stories such as Caroline’s. Discussing the Underground Railroad Murals located in Milwaukee at the Marquette Interchange, and subsequent critique of the representation of Quarlls, she impressed upon the audience to “stress the integrity of the story. These are family stories and are interesting told just the way they were.”
The second session of the day was led by a York University student panel, moderated by 3rd year PhD candidate Francesca D’Amico, whose area of study is 20th century African American political and cultural history. Selected from two undergraduate courses at York University taught by Dr. Andrea Davis, “Black Literatures & Culture in Canada,” and Professor Michele Johnson, “African-Canadian History,” Mary Woldemichael, Tia Harris and Brooke Cafaro spoke on various aspects of African Canadian identity and the reciprocal formation of a ‘Canadian identity’ through the lens of education and culture.
Originally from Ethiopia, Mary Woldemichael migrated to Canada at 10 years old, speaking a few words of English. She is currently a Psychology undergraduate at York University anticipating graduation in the next two years – the 1st person of her family to do so. Speaking on the “Historical Presence of Black Women in Canada,” Mary aims to empower youth by equipping them with the knowledge and awareness of their roles in society.  Mary stated that “as a female immigrant to Canada [noticing] a gap in the history of blacks in the education system, this course [African-Canadian History] enabled me to explore my Blackness” and unearth the stories of “Canadian black women as role models for children to look up to [as] many black children have been cheated by not having these stories.”
Having now completed her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Social Work, Tia Harris, a first generation immigrant of Barbadian and Jamaican descent, focuses her research in community capacity building and working with women and youth. Her paper “Starting the Narrative at the Beginning: The Silence Narrative” discussed the critical ways in which Blackness gets positioned outside of the historical Canadian context. “What is ‘Canadian’? What does it entail? What does it look like?” were some of the questions her presentation raised, keen questions in the post-panel discussion period.
Entering her final year of the Concurrent Education program at York University as an Intermediate /Senior teacher candidate, Brooke Cafaro, whose research interests include Canadian Post-Colonial studies discussed “African Canadians and the Education System.” Operating on the core belief that History and Literature are fused in their illustrative capacity for educating young minds, she seeks to provide true inclusivity and original expression in the classroom and inspire all students to look beyond the master narrative. According to Brooke, “many students become disengaged because they do not see themselves in the curriculum or as valued contributors to the story.” Brooke stated that “Canada has held itself up as a mythical haven to Blacks and has refused to acknowledge that it has a race problem,” a problem which manifests itself in the streaming of black youth in the classroom. ... “One of the biggest issues with classifying Black youth as incompetent is streaming.” 
The third session of the day was led by PhD student Funke Aladejebi. Based in the department of History at York University, Funke’s focus is on African-Canadian women as educators in the 20th century. Her dissertation will outline the importance of African Canadian women in sustaining their communities and preserving a distinct Black identity within restrictive gender and racial barriers. Her presentation, entitled “Oral History and Black Female Teachers in the 20th Century,” focused on interviews she had conducted with black female education pioneers, some of whom were present to hear Funke’s recounting of their narratives. While many of their stories were stark in their description of what it was like to enter the education field as a woman and Black, it became apparent that “despite the challenges [of being a Black female educator in the 1900s] many enjoyed their jobs ... [they] refused, not resisted the gaze of the Other.”
The final session of the day was led by Peter Hanes, Information Technology Specialist/ Editor International (Canada-USA-UK) Black Studies and son of Loretta Carter Hanes, who campaigned for many years to have Washington take appropriate note of Emancipation Day – April 16, 1862. Loretta Carter Hanes' campaign efforts culminated in the District of Columbia declaring April 16 a legal public holiday in 2005. Peter Hanes has continued the initiative of seeing to Emancipation Day receive the same respect and dedication as Martin Luther King Day. According to Peter, when people question his insistence on this, his response is that it is healing and restorative to the narrative of Black American and Canadian bodies in North America. Peter discussed the many initiatives underway to have Underground Railroad locations of historical importance established as Heritage sites, stating that the need may not always be immediately apparent, however, to give voice to these narratives by documenting and honoring their names in the pages of history is our duty.
Following the conference, participants were taken on a Museum Heritage Tour starting with a visit to the First Baptist Church on King Street, Chatham. The church was deemed a national heritage site by the Ontario Heritage Trust in honour of John Brown, whose revolutionary actions escalated the tensions between the North and the South that led to the Civil War in 1861. A tour of the museum grounds and Buxton community followed, led by hosts and curators of the Buxton Museum Bryan and Shannon Prince, including a tour of the Colbert-Henderson log cabin. Built in the 1850s and inhabited by successive families until 1986, it is the oldest remaining from the original Elgin settlement and now sits on the Buxton National Historical Site and Museum having been restored with financial assistance from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Services Canada (HRSDC). Lastly, a brief tour of the South Kent Renewable Energy Wind Farm concluded the day, showcasing the renewable power initiative being undertaken in southwestern Ontario to enable a sustainable farming economy.
The day concluded amidst excited preparations for Buxton's 89th Homecoming Celebrations on the weekend, complete with food and refreshments being served at the Prince residence.
The Harriet Tubman Institute thanks the Buxton Historical Society for yet another successful year!