Online presentation highlights history of local Emancipation Day celebrations

by Sylene Argent

The Amherstburg Freedom Museum and the Essex County Black Historical Research Society jointly presented the “Emancipation in Windsor: Celebrating Black Activism and Achievement” event online last Friday afternoon.

  Irene Moore Davis, President of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, hosted the event, which was presented on the Amherstburg Freedom Museum Facebook page.

  “In the 19th century, wherever black people existed in Canada, they felt compelled to commemorate the day, August 1, when slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1834,” Moore Davis said. Today, the celebrations continue. This year in a different way, because of COVID-19.

  “We certainly have a long history of great emancipation celebrations here in Canada throughout the decades,” she said. “For decades, Windsor’s famous emancipation celebrations drew thousands to Jackson Park. Renowned for dazzling entertainment, parades, food, family reunions, and fun, they were also annual celebrations of transnational black activism and achievement.” 

  Part of her presentation focused on Mr. Emancipation, Walter Perry, who organized the celebrations in Windsor for many years. Perry was born in Chatham in 1899, and moved to Windsor with his mother at the age of eight, in 1907, after the death of his father. He had six siblings. He did not finish high school as he needed to support his family. Throughout his adulthood, he sold newspapers, first at the corner or Ouellette and Riverside, to passengers on the Detroit River fairy boats, and later to commuters at the entrance of the Detroit/Windsor tunnel, she said.

  Moore Davis also focused on the British American Association of Coloured Brethren (BAACB), which was a non-profit organization responsible for many emancipation celebrations in Windsor from the late 1930s into the 1960s.

  Perry started as a volunteer with the BAACB, and was later hired as a manager.

  When talking to individuals, of all ethnic cultural backgrounds who were around Windsor between the ‘40s and ‘60s, they often call attention to the amazing celebration of emancipation, Moore Davis said. There were parades, a midway carnival, pageants, barbeques, talent shows, competitions, and the great sepia contest, which was more than a beauty contest, it looked for black excellence among young women of African descent, she commented.

  Often people remember the fun things about the Emancipation Day celebrations, which is important. “Celebrating black joy was and is an important endeavour.” But, there were serious elements, Moore Davis said. It is good to reflect on those as well. It was not merely a big party, it was something that was intended to promote black success and progress, and celebrate black excellence. “To show us in the light in which we deserve to be shown.”

  In regards to Emancipation Day, she urged everyone to think of black excellence and activism, and highlighting those doing well in the community and using their success stories to inspire others.

  A lot of people of Windsor associate emancipation with people like Perry and the BAACB, Moore Davis said. That group of organizers has become synonymous with emancipation in Windsor. Before the BAACB was formed, Moore Davis said, black communities commemorated emancipation with observances in Windsor-Essex County, and throughout Canada.

  There are very few records relating to Windsor’s celebrations in the 19th century, but it is clear that Windsor’s celebrations ceased by end of the 1890s in a big way. “They weren’t really to be revived again in their original format or level of excellence until the 1930s,” Moore Davis added.

Locally, the emancipation celebrations at the old lagoon in Sandwich were the most notorious, and successful, if judging by the number of individuals who participate. But, it was also frowned upon because of the drinking and gambling, she said.

In 1912, black ministers from Windsor, Amherstburg, and Detroit were petitioning Amherstburg Council to put an end to the emancipation celebrations there, “because they had degenerated into a day of debauchery and gambling,” she said.

  Perry, she said, had commented by the time the day was done, the jails were full. The last of those Sandwich celebrations was held in 1915.

  The BAACB was formed in 1935 in Windsor to create an appropriate celebration for Emancipation Day. “Uplifting the community of African decent on both sides of the border was what the emancipation celebrations of the ‘30s, ’40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s were really all about,” Moore Davis commented.

  “The objects were, officially, to assist and developing the interest of the negro – as that was the terminology at the time – including the promotion of amicable relations and understanding between them and other races, and within our race, and without restricting and in furtherance of the objects aforesaid, to provide recreation, amusement, entertainment, athletics, and educational facilities and benefits,” she said, adding it was also meant to to print, publish, sell, and distribute literature; to collect monies by way of donation, or otherwise, and to create the festival.

  In the 1950s and 1960s, Freedom Awards were presented to individuals, to black and white individuals, annually. “They were a sign of the true intent of emancipation,” she said. Local winners of African descent included Alton Parker, a former Windsor Detective who was Canada’s first black detective, and George McCurdy, a former Deputy Reeve of Amherstburg.

  “Progress” was the official publication of the Emancipation Day festival. It was more than a program, but an editorial that gave readers a glimpse of how the black community was doing, Moore Davis said.

  Despite best efforts, as of May 1958, the BAACB was carrying a debt of around $6,100 from previous Emancipation Day celebrations, she said, mainly due to the rain in 1956 and the destruction of the Jackson Park grandstand and bandshell by fire in 1957. It was said, Moore Davis said, that the grandstands were mysteriously burnt down days before the Emancipation Day celebration. It was said fire hydrants did not work, so firefighters could not do anything for the first 40-minutes.  

  And, she added, after the Detroit uprising happened in 1967, it lead Windsor municipal authorities to perceive it may be risky to have too many individuals of African descent gathered together.

  They were moved to Mic Mac Park, and never regained strength, she said.                

  She urged viewers to think about what emancipation means today. There is a motion to have Emancipation Day recognized federally, to give recognition to call attention to the history of the peoples of African-descent in Canada, and to focus on not only black history, but black future, as well. She spoke about a petition circulating online to support this initiative.

  There are also many measures underway to help boost the level of black history and content in the curriculum in Ontario. She invited everyone to support those initiatives.

  “Emancipation is truly something for all of us to celebrate,” Moore Davis said.

  If you are interested in learning more, visit the society website at:

  Moore Davis is currently writing a book called, “Our Own Two Hands: A history of Black Lives in Windsor.” It is currently in the revision stage, and will likely be available for purchase next year.