Beyond the Underground Railroad

The Promised Land Project reveals forgotten Black History

Date published: 2013-02-28 2:00:00 PM

Though you may not know it from the history books, Black History in the 19th century has played a major role in Canada’s social and economic development. That knowledge gap is closing, however, thanks to the efforts of the multidisciplinary Promised Land Project in Ontario.

“Black history in Canada has been limited to a mythical version of the Underground Railroad,” says Boulou Ebanda de B’béri, one of the project’s lead researchers and a professor at the University of Ottawa. “That’s been considered the final stop, and we need to change this.”

From 2007 to 2012, the Promised Land Project—subtitled The Freedom Experience of Blacks in ChathamKent—brought together specialists in cultural studies, communications, history and theatre to unearth and share the forgotten stories of black Canadians. Their work spawned more than 45 lectures, workshops and symposia, 25 media interviews, 10 websites, six documentaries and a pair of live dramatic performances. It also produced five databases, including a geographic information system (GIS) that acts as a virtual time machine, superimposing historical and cultural information overtop presentday satellite maps of ChathamKent.

Researchers worked directly with residents of ChathamKent—youth in particular. Over the five years, more than 146 high school students were involved in the project in various ways, from participating in field trips and researching their own family histories to writing and performing plays.

This community engagement was critical, but brought certain challenges.

“We were dealing with personal histories, and people are not always willing to give those away,” explains de B’béri. “People may not want to admit their great, great grandparents were slave owners, for example.”

Once the conversation started, however, that all changed.

“We got young kids involved in their ancestry, unearthing relationships, asking questions,” he says. “All these little family histories were discovered, creating a dialogue within the communities about their own cultural and racial identities.”

De B’béri says the dialogue stimulated by the project is extremely relevant to Canada today, highlighting the racial inequities that still exist.

“A few years ago, there was talk of creating black schools in Toronto,” he recalls. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, black Canadians were fighting to be part of society, fighting to send their kids to school. And we’re still talking about segregated schools, which is why we have to continue this research.”

Through its GIS database and other mechanisms, the Promised Land Project plans to spread its community engagement and generationbridging approach across the country.

“This project looked at southern Ontario, but you’d find similar histories in Nova Scotia, Alberta, British Columbia,” says de B’béri. “It’s the same story all over Canada.”