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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Irene Moore Davis receives Harriet Tubman Award for Commitment to a Purpose

by Sylene Argent

When Irene Moore Davis was a little girl, her mother was on the founding board for what is now the Amherstburg Freedom Museum. This early connection to Black History sparked in her, what would become, a lifelong passion of preserving the stories of African-Canadians who changed the course of history.

  Due to her passion, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) recently awarded Moore Davis with the Harriet Tubman Award for Commitment to a Purpose.

  “It was a really pleasant surprise. I had no idea I was being nominated. I opened up my email one day, I’m going to say in the second week of January, and saw that I was receiving this award,” Moore Davis said.

  Shantelle Browning-Morgan nominated Moore Davis for the award. “She is a marvellous Black-Canadian history teacher, as well as a French and English teacher,” Moore Davis said, adding Browning-Morgan was a recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in teaching Canadian History in 2011. “She’s a great collaborator. We work on a lot of projects together, and it was just so nice of her to nominate me.”

  Moore Davis said her nomination for the Harriet Tubman Award for Commitment to a Purpose was in recognition of the many projects she has been involved with, including her role as Executive Producer in the 2020 documentary film, “The North Was Our Canaan,” which was about black history in Sandwich Township. It won Best Canadian Short Documentary, and Best Short Documentary Director at the International Black and Diversity Film Festival.

  They also zeroed in on the work Moore Davis had done in developing curriculum resources for the Greater Essex County District School Board, called African-Canadian Roads to Freedom, and also looked at the work she does through the media, hosting virtual presentations that ensure people know the stories of Black-Canadian Ancestors. She is also the President of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, and has written books about African-Canadian history.

  When Moore Davis learned she won the award, she said it was a wonderful experience, however, “All of us who are involved in this work are certainly very conscious of the incredible work the Ontario Black History Society does, and there is a long list of really great people, and educators, and historian and activists, who have been honoured by the OBHS in the past. So, it was just so nice to join that list and to be a part of [its] annual Black History Month kick-off.”

  Moore Davis noted the OBHS Black History Month Kick-off event has been virtual the past few years. When it happens in-person, there are hundreds of individuals gathered at a beautiful luncheon, with great keynote speakers. “The atmosphere is stellar,” she said.

“Above all, the award is given to an individual, and that is really great, but I collaborate with really excellent people here in Windsor and Essex County, and I feel like the award is actually theirs as well,” she said.

“In my mind, I share it with [Co-Executive Producer] Heidi Jacobs and Anushray Singh [Director], who worked on the documentary with me, and who are now working on another one with me. And, I share it with all of the members of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, because we are all volunteers and we all go into schools and do these presentations and work on resources, and put-up displays, and get information out there. Everyone works pretty hard.”

  Moore Davis noted she also provided the narration for the documentary, wrote the essays, and basically came up with the concept for the film.

  At the time, Singh was a graduate student at the University of Windsor, and “He did a great job as our Director. He worked with a film crew of undergraduate students. Just to watch him not only directing the film, but teaching the undergraduate students every step of the way, was a beautiful thing to observe,” Moore Davis, adding the documentary was funded by a University of Windsor SSHRC Grant.

  The film they are working on now, called “Across the River to Freedom,” has very much been the same process, Moore Davis said. “We are so thrilled to be working with him again. He is so dynamic.”

  The new documentary will also focus on Sandwich, but features specific freedom-seekers’ stories, Moore Davis said, adding it is being funded through the Gordie Howe Bridge Authority.

  In conjunction with the new documentary, Moore Davis said curriculum resources, a walking tour, and an interactive website are being developed.

  She said she shares the award with many others, including those who are involved with putting on activities to promote Black History.

  “I am very pleased and honoured to receive it, but I feel like I am receiving it on their behalf,” Moore Davis commented.

  Currently Moore Davis is also putting the finishing touches on her book, “Our Own Two Hands: A history of Black Lives in Windsor.” The book received a Trillium Grant, which allowed those involved to publish 200 copies of the final manuscript in book form. She said the copies of the final manuscript were given to elders within the African-Canadian community, historians, and people who are really interested in black history.

  The hope was the elders would look at the book and give feedback, and there were some key areas where people wanted more information added. That information, she said, was useful in helping her do more research. She is currently in the editing stage of the second version of the book, so that can go out to publication.

  “When we finally have a chance to tell these stories, you want to make sure they are told right,” Moore Davis said. “Some of the older folks that gave us that feedback, are no longer with us. So, I am so grateful they did share that feedback.”

  In explaining the origins of her passion, Moore Davis said, “When you grow up in the community of African-descent in Windsor and Essex-County, it is very, very easy to fall in love with these stories. And to recognize that maybe what you are learning in school doesn’t reflect all the things your community and family have told you,” Moore Davis said.

  She said her family growing up valued history, and saved historic photographs and told stories of ancestors.    

  As the daughter of one of the women on the founding board for what is now the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, Moore Davis said she spent a lot of time in the Museum working on her homework in the archival area, while her mother gave tours. “I was the kid who cut the ribbon at the grand opening,” she added fondly.

  “Growing up in that kind of environment, it was impossible not to be interested in history,” she said, adding her passion really sparked when she had the opportunity to observe a high school speech contest that was for Black History Month around 20-years ago. The students did a great job, but they all focused on African-Americans. She thought about the incredible African-Canadian stories, and believed those stories should also be told, understood, acknowledged, and loved.

  “That led me to step up my game to ensure people know about our history. It is great to know about MLK and Rosa Parks, that’s really wonderful. It is important to also know about our leaders...but also how communities worked together, how people resisted racism, and how they formed organizations, and the initiatives they took to make things better.”

  Looking ahead, Moore Davis is excited to celebrate what will be Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s 200th birthday next year. Many people all over North America will celebrate this day in a lot of ways, including in Essex County. In addition, the University of Windsor will soon unveil a bronze sculpture of Shadd Cary.

  “That’s really exciting,” she said.

  Shadd Cary, Moore Davis said, grew up as a free person of African-descent in Delaware and Pennsylvania. She did not have to come to Canada, and could have continued teaching school in the US and being an anti-slavery activist.

  In her twenties, she made her way to Windsor in 1851 to set up a school for the newly emancipated or freedom-seekers who had just arrived. In 1853, she became the first woman in Canada and the first black woman in North America to set up a newspaper. She also published a book explaining why people should emigrate to Canada and what to expect here in terms of climate and the crops being grown.

  She also set up an anti-slavery society, and started recruiting for the Civil War when it began.

  She married and had a couple of children. But at this point, she is a widow. She was traveling in northern States, recruiting soldiers for the Union Army effort. “And that is incredibly dangerous work as well,” Moore Davis said.

  She later moved to Washington and established herself there as a teacher and principal, went to Howard Law School and became the first back woman to enter law school and the second to graduate. She then became a civil rights attorney.

  “That’s an incredible story, and there are so many stories like that. We could talk about this history year-round, and that’s what we try to do at the History Society, make sure it is not just limited to February. And that is why I love this year’s Federal Black History Month Theme, which is ‘February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day,’ because we do want to have this conversation year-round.”


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