The Ontario Heritage Trust is offering the chance to take a virtual visit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site along with hearing a lecture from bestselling author and two-time Scotiabank Giller Prize-winner Esi Edugyan, all in recognition of Black History Month.
Viewers can watch the free 70-minute lecture and tour any time between 5 and 9 p.m. on Feb. 25, March 11 or March 16 after registering on the Trust’s website. The virtual event is being hosted by Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, named after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The site memorializes the life and work of Josiah Henson, who escaped slavery by travelling the Underground Railroad to Canada in 1830. In a pre-recorded talk, Edugyan will discuss themes of Black heritage, identity and belonging in her critically acclaimed novel Washington Black, which depicts the titular character’s adventures during and after his escape from slavery. She’ll also touch on her writing process, historical research and how to bring Black stories to life.
Steven Cook, site manager at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, said the novel is a perfect fit for the event because of Edugyan’s talent for doing “historical and methodical research” in the development of her characters as well as the similarities between Washington Black and Josiah Henson.
“The story Washington Black really resonates well with the story that we tell here at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site,” Cook said. “[It has themes] of identity and displacement and belonging, and those are certainly themes that are present in Josiah Henson’s life, escaping from slavery, settling here in Canada, and then using his talents to bring awareness to Canada as a safe haven for people running away on the Underground Railroad.”
The character Washington Black is encouraged to explore his talents while still in slavery, as was the case with Henson, Cook said. He didn’t know how to read or write and he was encouraged to learn while still enslaved in Maryland. When he arrived in Canada, those talents contributed to the creation of the settlement now known as Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.
These sites and their history are important to acknowledge for many reasons, but especially because of their impact on the sense of belonging and identity of Black Canadians, Cook said. He grew up and went to school in Dresden, but despite the proximity to Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, the settlement and its history were not acknowledged by the curriculum.
“We weren’t even taught about Josiah’s story,” Cook said. “As important as it is, we weren’t brought out here to the site and the school is about three blocks away, so you kind of get a sense that history was stolen from you as you get older and you reflect on where did I come from and how did I get to be here.”
Now, Cook works to educate others about Henson and the five-acre settlement at the site, which includes the museum, three historic buildings and two cemeteries. Cook said the lecture and the programming offered at Black heritage sites throughout Ontario help shine a light on the early Black presence in Ontario and establish that Black history is Canadian history, running “parallel to everything else that was happening in the province.” There are Black heritage sites all around in places like Collingwood, Oro-Medonte and Owen Sound, but as was the case during Cook’s childhood, they often go unrecognized.
“If you’re a young person today growing up in these small towns throughout the province and you’re looking for Black history, it’s going to be hard to find,” he said. “We really need to shine a light on the past to let people know that the Blacks were present throughout the province and they were helping to build these communities everywhere, and that really contributes to a sense of identity and belonging.”
Along with three event dates for the public, the Trust is offering two education dates for classes throughout the province to join in on the lecture and tour. They’ve had a lot of bookings from schools throughout the province and starting next week, teachers will be able to book a live virtual tour of the site where students can ask questions in real time.
The Trust plans to offer the live virtual tours to the public soon, but in the meantime, Cook hopes that the online event will lead people to their other resources, including a video tour of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, a virtual museum exhibit to explore the site, and the Slavery to Freedom web portal, which showcases almost two dozen Black history sites, museums and churches around the province. The website also includes information about the Trust’s plaque program and 26 plaques that commemorate Black heritage.
Cook encourages people in Muskoka and beyond to dive deeper into history than they did in school by taking advantage of the virtual event and the Trust’s other offerings. Whether it’s Black History Month or not, it’s important for Canadians of all races to be educated on the vital role Black Canadians have played in the history of the country.
“To have a better understanding of Canada as a whole, as a nation, the Black story needs to be told because we were part of the building of it as well,” Cook said, “and you’re not going to see that in the history books.”
For more information, or to register for the event, visit the Ontario Heritage Trust website. Watch the video below to see site manager Steven Cook give a tour of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.