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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Virtual event kicks-off Black History Month by “Celebrating Black Women of Excellence”

by Sylene Argent

Pictured right: Photo of Ada Kelly Whitney provided by the Amherstburg Freedom Museum.

On Friday evening, residents of Windsor-Essex County were able to join a virtual event to give an early kick-off to Black History Month, and, more specifically, look at “Celebrating Black Women of Excellence.”

  The event – co-hosted by the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, the Windsor West Indian Association, Black Women of Forward Action, and the Amherstburg Freedom Museum - offered a way for community members to gather and recognize the importance of Black History Month.

  This year’s National Black History Month theme is, “February and Forever: Celebrating Black History Today and Every Day,” event host and President of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, Irene Moore Davis, explained, further noting the theme of this year’s Windsor-Essex joint Black History Month Kick-off was “Celebrating Black Women of Excellence.” 

The virtual event included artistic performances from poets, singers, and musicians, heartfelt remembrances, and a special appearance from the Windsor West Indian Association Choir.

  “Essex County, as you know, is rich in Black History, and Canadians of African-descent have played important roles in the cultural, political, social, and economic progress of our community,” Moore Davis said. “Our Region has been populated by people of African-descent from the 18th century, when free black Loyalists, as well as enslaved Africans, were among the area’s early residents. To the 19th century, when formerly enslaved African Americans and free people of colour streamed into this area by the thousands – fleeing either bondage or oppression – to the modern area, when immigrants from the Continent of Africa and the Caribbean made this Region their new home.”  

  Throughout the event, Moore Davis highlighted the significant contributions of several Canadian women of African-desent; some who resided locally.

  Chloe Cooley, Moore Davis said, was a black woman enslaved in Queenston Upper Canada, who routinely fought against her bondage.

  “She regularly protested her enslavement by behaving in an unruly manner, stealing property entrusted to her, refusing to work, and leaving her Master’s property without permission for short-periods of time,” Moore Davis said. “These were acts of resistance and should be understood that way.”

  On March 14, 1793, Cooley was violently bound and transported across the Niagara River, to be sold in New York State, Moore Davis said. “Cooley resisted fiercely. Her screams and struggles were witnessed and reported to Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, who used this incident as a means to introduce legislation to abolish slavery in Upper Canada. The Act, Moore Davis said, prevented the further introduction of slaves and limited the Terms of Contract for Servitude, which was passed that year.

  Little more is known about Cooley, Moore Davis noted, “But her plight is a testament to the struggle of enslaved black persons and the various ways in which they resisted enslavements.”

  Dr. Pearleen Oliver was born in 1917 in Nova Scotia, and was a leading figure in the Canadian Civil Rights Movement. For over 60-years, Oliver served as an activist, historian, and community leader, Moore Davis said.

  “As an activist, Dr. Oliver fought hard to remove barriers of discrimination. She spoke out in powerful, dignified protest, and she brought about change,” Moore Davis said, adding she pushed open the doors to black women for nurses’ training and became the spokesperson for Viola Desmond, when she appealed her 1946 conviction of refusing to leave a white’s only section in a movie theatre.

  Dr. Oliver was also the founder of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the Black United Front, and the Black Cultural Centre. She was the first woman moderator of the African United Baptist Church and a Chatelaine magazine woman of the year.

  She passed away in 2008.

  “We give thanks and honour her life-long work for social justice,” Moore Davis said.

  Ella Jackson was born in Windsor in 1922, spending her childhood in Windsor and in Detroit. In 1944, she became the first black woman from Southwestern Ontario to join the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. She passed away in 2002.

  Marie-Joseph Angélique, Moore Davis said, has a rather difficult story, but one that is important to tell. She was born around 1705 in Portugal and was taken by boat to North America, eventually enslaved in Montreal. In 1733, she asked her owner for her freedom, but was denied.

  “This infuriated her,” Moore Davis explained. “In early 1734, she was sold for 600lbs of gunpowder. Upon hearing she was to be sold, Angélique threatened to burn her owner’s house down. Soon after, Angelique ran away with her lover. Her intent was to return to Portugal, the land of her birth.”

  Two-weeks later, they were tracked down and Angélique was returned to her owner. Once back in Montreal, she continued to state she would burn her mistress’s house down, because she wanted to be free.

  On the evening of April 10, 1734, a massive fire blazed through Montreal, destroying homes, shops, warehouses, a hospital, and a convent, Moore Davis said. “Angélique was accused of starting the fire and arrested the next day.”

  In court the following morning, she was charged with arson, a capital crime. “Angélique was found guilty and sentenced to death. She was tortured, hanged, and her body burned. “While it remains unknown whether or not she set the fire, Angélique’s story has come to symbolize black resistance and freedom,” Moore Davis said.

  Ada Kelly Whitney attended Mercer Street School and Windsor Collegiate Institute, and went on to become the first black woman to teach in the Ontario Public School Board. Hired by the Windsor School Board of Education system in 1913, she was assigned to Mercer Street School, where she earned an annual salary of $600.

  In 1918, Kelly Whitney publicly acknowledged anti-black racism and proactive race consciousness. She later relocated to New York, where she became a social worker and religious leader. She passed away at the age of 78.

  Lena O’Ree, Moore Davis said, was a radio show host at the age of 17 in New Brunswick, but the station did not make it known she was a black woman. At the age of 22 in 1936, she went to the YWCA, to try and join, but was turned away. She returned the following day with ten other black women, who became the first black members of the YWCA in Canada.   

While working for the Admiral Beatty Hotel as an elevator attendant, she refused to enter the building from the backdoor, as required for black staff and guests to do.

  “Instead, O’Ree walked through the front doors, an action that was pivotal in the desegregation of the hotel and other city institutions,” Moore Davis said.

  She continued her activism with the Pride of Race, unity and dignity through education. The New Brunswick Human Rights Commission honoured her for her lifetime contributions. 

Mary Miles Bibb was a Quaker raised, free born black school teacher from Rhode Island. In 1948, she married Henry Bibb. Two-years later, the couple migrated to Sandwich, where they became community leaders.

  “Mary participated in many abolitionist activities,” Moore Davis said, which included helping to manage the Refugee Home Society, which raised funds to purchase land to be resold to formerly enslaved families.

  In 1852, Mary opened a school for black and white students, and had 69 students in 1853. She and her husband also established the Windsor Anti Slavery Society.

  “The most important undertaking of Mary and Henry Bibb was the ‘Voice of the Fugitive,’ the first successful black newspaper in Canada. Mary made numerous contributions, but was not listed as co-editor or publisher. She wrote many articles for the newspaper and often ran it when Henry was away on speaking engagements.”

  Henry and Mary Bibb have been designated persons of national historic significance by the Government of Canada. Their plaque can be viewed on Sandwich Street.

  Mary Miles Bibb passed away in 1877 in Brooklyn, New York.

  The last individual Moore Davis spoke of was Eleanor Collins, who was honoured with a postage stamp this year at the age of 102.

  Collins was born in Edmonton in 1919. By 1939, she was living in Vancouver and was singing in gospel groups and jazz quintets on CBC radio and TV. In 1954, a Vancouver CBC TV outlet showcased her in a musical call, “Bamboula,” featuring the first interracial cast to perform in Canada.

  She sang in variety shows, on stage, in clubs, and in recording studios, Moore Davis said.

A year later, Collins had her own variety show on CBC TV, “The Eleanor Show,” this making her the first artist of colour in North America to host her own national weekly television show. In 1964, the show returned as “Eleanor.”

  “Through her ground-breaking television broadcast, Collins fostered race relations in Canada and paved the way for a more racially-diverse entertainment scene,” Moore Davis said, adding she has won many awards.

  “Today at 102, Eleanor Collins is a living pioneer and legend, who has achieved excellence in arts and left a permanent mark on Canadian society for which generations, and generations to come, will reference as a seed of inspiration,” Moore Davis said.

  “Let’s be inspired by all of these women of excellence by all means, not just in February, but year-round,” Moore Davis commented.  

  The virtual event on Friday evening was also a means to encourage community members to participate in the over 20 Black History Month events happening locally throughout the month of February. The 2022 Windsor-Essex County Black History Month Activity Schedule is available at

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