It’s Black History Month, and we have a few Black creators stopping by this month to share history that has touched them or molded who they are today. To share history that may not have received as much attention in our schools. Growing up, I didn’t learn much about Black History in my classes. Our schools are seriously lacking in teaching Black History. Only we can make a difference. I encourage you to request your schools include more in their classes.
I’ll be doing a giveaway on each post. So make sure to check out the giveaway at the bottom of this post. There will be three winners!
Celebrating the “Underground” History of Black Canadians by Chad Lucas
Like many Canadians of my generation, Underground to Canada was the first and only book on Black history that I was taught in elementary school. Written in 1977 by Barbara Smucker, a white librarian, it tells the story of Julilly and Liza, enslaved Black girls who rely on the help of a white Canadian abolitionist to escape the southern U.S. and reach freedom in Ontario.
Underground to Canada served for years as a classroom introduction to the Underground Railroad, but it barely spends a page on what life was actually like for Black people in Canada. It doesn’t mention the history of slavery on this side of the border. Taught on its own, it helped feed the feel-good myth of Canada as a multicultural haven compared to the United States.
It wasn’t until later that I learned about some of my own ancestors. The Nova Scotian community of Birchtown, just outside Shelburne—where my great grandmother was born in 1904—was once the largest free Black settlement in North America. But “free” is a relative term.
Promised land and freedom if they sided with the British against their American enslavers, Black Loyalists were brought to Nova Scotia in the 1780s and settled on a fragment of the land that white Loyalists received. They endured conditions that weren’t much better than those of the enslaved Black men, women and children who were also herded north with their white Loyalist masters.
“Negro frolicks” were banned in Shelburne, preventing Black people from gathering in large groups. Several Nova Scotian towns had sundown laws restricting Black people from moving at night. Black workers were hired for far less than white labourers, which fueled white resentment as the region’s population rose and unemployment grew. When a Black preacher, David George, dared baptize white Loyalists in 1784, a white mob destroyed his house and spent the next ten days driving Black people out of Shelburne—the first race riot in North American history.
Life in Nova Scotia was so hard that nearly 1,200 of the 3,000 Black Loyalists who arrived in the 1780s accepted an offer to leave for Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1792.
I didn’t learn much about that in school. Neither did I learn the history of Lucasville, the Black community that some of my descendants helped found in the early 1800s. We didn’t talk about how the last segregated school in Nova Scotia closed in 1983, the year before I started school.
But I read a lot, and I had a community that educated me. I discovered heroes—like Carrie Best, one of the writers who inspired me to become a journalist.
Dr. Best lived in a town called New Glasgow, and in 1942 she and her son, Calbert, challenged the local Roseland Theatre’s segregation policy by sitting in the “whites only” section and refusing to leave until they were arrested, charged and fined. She then sued the theatre. Not only did she lose the case, as the court upheld Canadian businesses’ “right” to discriminate against Black people, but the judge ordered her to pay the defendants’ costs.
Dr. Best kept fighting. In 1946 she started her own newspaper, The Clarion. Later that year, when a woman named Viola Desmond was violently dragged out of the Roseland, jailed and fined for challenging its segregation policy, Carrie Best championed her cause in The Clarion and rallied the community to support her.
Viola Desmond did not get justice either—not until decades after her death, when she was officially pardoned in 2010. Today she is heralded as a Canadian civil rights icon, and her portrait is on our $10 bill. Carrie Best is less well-known across the country, but she’s no less important in the struggle against anti-Black racism in Canada.
I didn’t get to meet Dr. Best in person, but I’ve been lucky enough to learn from other writers and trailblazers, like poet and novelist George Elliott Clarke, and the late Charles Saunders, one of the first—and to this day, few—Black journalists to have a regular column in a Nova Scotia newspaper. Saunders also broke barriers in speculative fiction, a part of his story that went tragically unheralded until his death last year.
So many talented Black writers, poets, artists, and filmmakers have existed “underground” in Nova Scotia and Canada, relatively unknown outside our own borders or even our own communities. But they’ve been here—telling our histories, challenging the status quo, documenting and celebrating what it means to be Black in Canada. I’m proud that their voices have shaped and continue to shape my own journey as a writer.
Chad Lucas is a Pitch Wars 2020 mentor, a Pitch Wars Class of 2018 alumnus, and a descendant of the historic African Nova Scotian community of Lucasville. His debut middle grade novel, THANKS A LOT, UNIVERSE, releases on May 11 from Amulet Books.
Enter for a chance to win a copy of Chad’s upcoming book, THANKS A LOT, UNIVERSE, releasing May 11, 2021.
This is a preorder so you will receive your copy once the book releases. Open internationally.
Here’s something about the book …
A moving middle-grade debut for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong
Brian has always been anxious, whether at home, or in class, or on the basketball court. His dad tries to get him to stand up for himself and his mom helps as much as she can, but after he and his brother are placed in foster care, Brian starts having panic attacks. And he doesn’t know if things will ever be “normal” again . . . Ezra’s always been popular. He’s friends with most of the kids on his basketball team–even Brian, who usually keeps to himself. But now, some of his friends have been acting differently, and Brian seems to be pulling away. Ezra wants to help, but he worries if he’s too nice to Brian, his friends will realize that he has a crush on him . . .
But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra has no choice but to take the leap and reach out. Both boys have to decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. But if they can be brave, they might just find the best in themselves–and each other.
“Thanks a Lot, Universe demonstrates how you don’t always know what your peers are going through, and how powerful kindness is. This honest portrayal of family trauma, changing friendships, and big emotions tugged at my heartstrings. Brian and Ezra will stick with me for a long time!”
— Janae Marks author of From The Desk of Zoe Washington
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