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Prince Edward Island's rich black history ignored?

Government website silent on Black History Month

by Robert Devet

Black Islanders, by Jim Hornby, describes some of the black islanders who shaped PEI's early black history. This year Black History Month is not even mentioned on the Government's website.
Black Islanders, by Jim Hornby, describes some of the black islanders who shaped PEI's early black history. This year Black History Month is not even mentioned on the Government's website.

(KJIPUKTUK), HALIFAX - It appears the Prince Edward Island government does not consider Black History Month, or African Heritage Month, to be that big a deal.

The government is not sponsoring any events, nor does Black History Month receive any mention on the government's website.

Stephanie Douglas is a PEI resident who over the years has done a lot of diversity consulting. She is now a Master of Island Studies student.

Douglas took to social media to argue that government should do more.

“At least the provincial website should have recognized our rich black history, and the new black islanders that are now part of our community,” she tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

Douglas remembers often being the only person of colour in the room when she first lived in PEI in the nineties. That's no longer the case, she says, there are a lot of new immigrants, a lot of international students, some are staying.

“It's about sending a message to new black islanders that their contributions are part of a rich history that continues to grow,” says Douglas.

The PEI government is not ignoring Black History Month at all, Andrew Sprague, spokesperson for the PEI Department of Tourism and Culture, tells the Halifax Media Co-op. It is just running a bit late.

"The Province  is planning to issue a release later this week where Minister Henderson  will recognize Black History Month and talk about the important role Black Islanders played in the history of the province,”writes Sprague.

And the government is sponsoring “appropriate displays of available materials which will be set up at several of the Province's Public Libraries,” writes Sprague.

Douglas suspects government just forgot to mark Black History Month on the calendar.

“I think they went, oh shit!,” she says.

In a sense PEI is falling victim to its own marketing as the Gentle Island, the home of Anne of Green Gables, Douglas believes.

“I don't want them to just mouth the stuff Nova Scota does, but I would like to see them do something inherently valuable as community,” says Douglas. “Maybe we need to do a Black Islanders day, just an acknowledgment of our rich cultural history.  I don't think the black community or the community in general have brought it up.

It works, says Douglas, pointing to increasing awareness of PEI's Lebanese and Mi'kmaw communities.

Jim Hornby, a Charlottetown lawyer, folklorist and historian, wrote  Black Islanders (1991), a history of the Prince Edward Island Black community. The study is for a large part based on historic trial records..

PEI's black community consisted almost entirely of slaves and their offspring, brought here by loyalists after the American revolution, Hornby tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

Charlottetown was home to “the Bog”, a black community predating Halifax's Africvile. At its peak close to 100 people lived in the area.

“One ex slave by the name of Samuel Martin, known as Black Sam, got this piece of boggy land that nobody else wanted, and he started living there, and other people just moved to that area, so from 1810 to 1900 we had this black community,” says Hornby.

Times were rough, and racism was common, says Hornby.

“People would get whipped all around town, tie them to the back of a cart, take them to one place, whip them there, and take them to another place, whip them there, and so on, he says. “Those things would happen a bit more often to people with names like Black Jack.”

The black community that existed near what is now downtown Charlottetown has merged into the overall PEI population.

Hornby felt that last year's celebrations around the 1864 Charlottetown Conference and Birthplace of Confederation would be a good opportunity to commemorate the Bog as well. After all, the Bog was close to Government House grounds where the meetings transpired.

Hornby submitted separate request for funding for a plaque, publication of a a short history of the community, and a commissioned piece of music in tribute to the Bog.

The organizing committee said no to all three proposals.

“The deeper message to me is that the government doesn't really want much to do with history. They just weren't comfortable with any history,” says Hornby.

Douglas thinks that should change.

“We all share the Island experience, and this is another part of that experience. We need our own unique PEI language around this. That is what I want people to think about.”

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter  @DevetRobert


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