A Whitewashing of History
Canadian Town Tried To Bury Its Founding By Black Pioneers
By DeNeen L. Brown PAGE1
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 17, 2002; Page A29
PRICEVILLE, Ontario. Some say only the dead in this town can speak the truth about how a virtually all-black settlement in Canada turned virtually all-white. But then, some of the living won't let them.
For years, the history of this rural settlement in southwestern Ontario was wrapped in a spooky silence. Photographs disappeared. Grave sites were plowed over, and tombstones from the black cemetery were stolen, hidden in stone piles, used as home plate in baseball games and as stepping stones in a wet basement.
It was as if the town were trying to erase the very existence of the black pioneers who settled this area in the early 1800s. Hide the fact that some of the whites who came here later married some of the blacks. Hide the fact that many generations later, some white people still living in this town may not be white at all. Just a drop, they used to say.
"There is a lot of history people don't know about," said Howard Sheffield, whose black ancestors lived in Priceville, about 100 miles northwest of Toronto. "The white people wanted to cover that history up because it relates back to them. They are black people that are passing for white. Some of those white people drove the rest of the blacks out."
Eventually, the only trace that black people had ever been in Priceville, working the land and building homes and a school, was the cemetery. Then in the 1930s, a white farmer named Billy Reid bought the land, plowed over the cemetery and planted potatoes.
That is what they say became of the history of black people in this part of Ontario. It was plowed over, buried and hushed up. But some of it survived, as when adults would whisper secrets, unaware that children were listening.
Now, black Canadians -- who make up about 1 percent of the country's 31 million people -- are trying to put the broken tombstones back together, pick up the pieces of their ancestry and fill in the spaces that were left in the history books. Books, plays and documentaries about the black experience in Canada have recently been released as a new generation of African Canadians comes of age and attempts to tell a history it was not taught in school.
"It was a shameful spot in the history of the community," said Jennifer Holness, director of "Speakers for the Dead," a film distributed by Canada's National Film Board that traces the search for tombstones in a divided town. "Shameful they eradicated the gravestones, which indicates how blacks were treated, that blacks were forced off the land and white settlers took their land. There were some intermarriages they thought of as shameful. There is a desire to keep that quiet." But Holness said the story of Priceville encapsulates the story of racism in Canada and digs beneath a stereotype of racial tolerance. "We as Canadians trot around and say, 'Americans are so racist. Look at the segregation down South. Look at the lynchings.' But it was just as bad in Canada. We didn't have official segregation. But there were places blacks couldn't go. We can't be smug about Canada's place in history when it comes to racism." The Priceville area was, she said, in some ways the Deep South of the North.
"Canada had slaves," said Sheffield, who lives in Collingwood, about 30 miles east of Priceville. "Don't think they didn't. Some escaped from the South, some were brought from the South and some were kept as slaves. They like to think it didn't happen here."
James Walker, author of "A History of Blacks in Canada: A Study Guide for Teachers and Students," said the first black person known to have lived in Canada was a young boy who came to the country as a slave in 1628 and was sold in Quebec. From the 1600s to the early 1800s, "there was never a time when blacks were not held as slaves in Canada. Slavery is thus a very real part of our history, yet the fact that slavery ever existed here has been one of our best-kept secrets." White Loyalists escaping the American Revolution brought many blacks as slaves to Canada. Freed blacks came as Loyalists themselves, and many of them fought for the British in the War of 1812.
Holness and filmmaker David Sutherland have pursued the story of Priceville because, they said, they wanted to tell the story of blacks in Canada who were not recent immigrants but who arrived here more than seven generations ago. "Ultimately, what we wanted to do is expose these ridiculous ideas about race," Holness said. "We wanted to say, 'You are so ridiculous that you are going to discriminate against me because of the color of my skin and you know what? You might be related to me.' " Sutherland said that in Priceville the filmmakers often ran into people who were reluctant to talk. "The underlying thing up there is you are who your grandparents are," Sutherland said. "We found some people who didn't want this to go further. 'Leave well enough alone. Aren't you people satisfied? Why do you want to stir up trouble?' "
"I thought, 'Trouble?' What does that mean? The idea of black ancestry, is that supposed to be trouble? As a black person, I don't see how that is trouble. But if more names were discovered, that might unsettle some people."
When Billy Reid bought the plot that included the cemetery, people here say, he knowingly removed some tombstones, buried them under a pile of rocks and proceeded to plant potatoes.
"I used to ask my father why that corner of the field was fenced off," Joyce Grimes, Reid's stepdaughter, said in the film. "He said, 'It was once a black cemetery. We raised very good potatoes on that particular piece of land.' "
Many white residents of Priceville joined a committee in 1989 to reclaim the cemetery, find the stones and restore dignity to the black pioneers. The effort was led by Les MacKinnon, who grew up hearing the stories about the "darkies' cemetery." MacKinnon said he was always bothered that he could walk to the grave of his grandfathers but that some of the people related to black settlers could not.
"The early black pioneers, they came here. They were the engine of growth and change," MacKinnon said. "It was their sweat, blood and tears that brought the bush to its knees and made space for farm fields. And then as the history was being written on the area, they were left out. The great white man showed up and wrote the history books."
When MacKinnon was a child, he heard stories. "I was always asking questions and I found out it was more productive sometimes just to sit quietly and not say anything. So I wouldn't be much older than the young lad there, maybe five, six at a quilting bee and I remember the old women arguing about darkies' corner and where was it," he said. "And each one of them had a different place that was darkies' corner."
MacKinnon, a tall man with thick hands, snow-white hair, ruddy skin and piercing blue eyes, drove through Priceville as a storm howled, covering fields and roads with snow.
"When those early black pioneers of African descent arrived here, they were faced with weather like this," MacKinnon said. "This is no place for the weak of heart or the timid."
He gave a guided tour to reveal the truth of Priceville. He pointed at what looked like empty fields, innocent houses. The buildings were deceiving; some of them still harbor tombstones taken from the cemetery.
MacKinnon slowed along Durham Road, where black families once lived. Now there is little or no trace of them. He stopped and pointed at a gray house. "That house there is the house that has tombstones in the basement, and the barn that's behind the shed, tombstones were used there, too."
He drove farther down the road, pointing at a white field. Behind the evergreens, there was a brick house. A family moved into that house in the 1960s and found a photo album in the attic. The photos were of a black man and a white woman "who were obviously closer than just friends," MacKinnon said. The woman who found the album took it to the town historian, who told her to burn it.
MacKinnon stopped at the intersection of Durham Road and Grey Road. "There it is, Durham Road Cemetery," he said. A sign reads: "The plot was dedicated October 13, 1990, in recognition of the pioneers of African descent and Loyalist stock who were early settlers in this area."
At first glance, it looks like just a small plot of vacant land surrounded by a fence. A closer look reveals piles of stones at the far fence. "We had ground-probing radar done on it, and it indicated somewhere around a hundred graves," MacKinnon said. "But we've only recovered four stones to this point in time."
Here, he paused, placing another bookmark in the controversy. It seems that the committee that was formed to restore the cemetery does not want to disturb any more of this plot by digging for more stones. "I only know what the stones tell us," MacKinnon said. "The stones were removed for some reason or another."
MacKinnon said an 1851 census showed that a large number of blacks lived here. Surely more people died here than the four indicated by the recovered gravestones, but it is unclear what happened to the other markers. He recalled an anonymous letter that arrived in 1999, giving a clue about where to look.
In the film, MacKinnon reads the letter: "I was told 65 or more years ago that when Billy Reid plowed up that cemetery, he took stones and floored his stable with them. I understand he ran cement on them."
Grimes, Reid's stepdaughter, provides an explanation in the film . "Back then people didn't have a lot of money to go to the store and buy stones. There were two or three stones in the basement of the home. Sometimes we had water in the basement. We needed them to walk on."
The population of Priceville has dwindled. The whole town is white now, with snow. "Where did the black people go?" MacKinnon said. "Some are still around. They are just not black any more."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company