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Monday, August 25, 2014

COLONIALIZATION + DISCRIMNINATION = RACISM: "Profiling" is today's buzz word

The Morely McKays, Jim Fords and Hugh Burnetts of Dresden are long gone but poverty, cultural misunderstanding and racism continue to fester in present-day society.

In truth, to a degree we are all a bit discriminatory.  By nature we are uncomfortable in the presence of people of differing pigmentation, different nationalities, skinny or fat, short or tall, handicapped, mentally challenged, disfigured, the poor and the needy. 

We pay lip service  to being a sensitive society but in so doing we are condescending as we continue to shun, turn our heads, neglect and ignore injustices.  For centuries we have been a not-in-my-backyard kind of people. We are simply too comfortable in our own skins and have difficulty accepting, understanding and appreciating the differences we see on the surface.  

While it has taken Homo Sapiens 200,000 years, we are slowly giving evidence of shedding inherent  discrimination and bigotry. Generally we are becoming more compassionate and accepting of differences in our "human" relations.  We just need the will to keep working on it for the benefit of future generations.  It's all about fostering humane attitudes within a mosaic of peoples and cultures.  

All we have to do is pick up a newspaper today and read about the ethnic disparity that continues to make headlines in large metropolitan centres such as Toronto.   There are now more than 590,000 blacks in the Province of Ontario, many of whom are grossly overrepresented in the court system, children's aid and welfare statistics and it is not altogether because of racial profiling.  Time does indeed march on, but it marches slowly in some instances...There are no quick fixes on the horizon for this extremely complex and deep-rooted social issue.

Yes, black people can now be served in eating establishments in Dresden, Ontario and get a hair cut any place they choose.  That is all part of history, gone and virtually forgotten in a small town that made  national newspaper headlines 60 years ago.  The focus of attention has nonetheless shifted today and societal assimilation is as much a hard sell as are the continued imposition of some of the values and beliefs handed down a century ago by our Canadian forefathers.  It would seem that we have learned nothing from our government imposed First Nations residential school experience.  Surely we can find a better Canadian way...A humane way that does not foster resentment.

Prejudices will continue to be with us until we finally come to the realization that we are all one. Artificial barriers are totally inconsequential, it is the whole human being that counts.

Dawn Settlement at the bend of the Sydenham River

The Dawn  settlement on the banks of the Sydenham River was developed primarily as a terminal point for refugee slaves from the United States.  The British-American Institute was created in the settlement to provide Black Canadians with skills necessary to create an independent life in their new land, many establishing permanent residences in the area and helping to build the community that would become Dresden. 

The Dawn Settlement, surrounded by fertile farm land and heavily forested areas conducive to the production of lumber, quite naturally provided the basis for a thriving community that appealed to the pioneering spirits of British and European entrepreneurs.

It did not take long for "White" anglo saxon business interests to take over governance of the new town and to monopolize its economy. Blacks, now very much a minority and still not comfortable with their new freedom, became totally subservient in the growth of the community.  A new subtle form of racial discrimination would be a way of life for several generations to come.

Background Preamble 
Brief summary of one man's fight against racial discrimination in Dresden, Ontario: 

The son of an American slave, Hugh Burnett returned to his home town of Dresden, after serving his country in World War II. However, he was not served in some restaurants because he was black. So, in 1948, he and other African Canadians founded the National Unity Association. They collected 115 names on a petition to end discrimination. This resulted in a referendum in Dresden which asked “Do you approve of the council passing a bylaw licensing restaurants in Dresden and restraining the owner or owners from refusing service regardless of race, colour or creed?” One hundred and eight (108) Dresdenites voted that restaurant owners should serve everyone while 517 voted against.  The numbers accurately  reflected the mindset of the community.
Hugh R. Burnett

In 1954 Burnett was part of a delegation to Ontario Premier Leslie Frost and the cabinet. Soon after that the Ontario Fair Accommodation Practices Act passed. It stated that “"No one can deny to any person or class of persons the accommodation, services or facilities usually available to members of the public." However some restaurants and barber shops in Dresden still refused to serve African Canadians. Justice William F. Schwenger investigated the complaints as a one-man commission. On the basis of his recommendations, Charles Daley, the minister of labour, refused to prosecute the two Dresden restaurant owners who had refused to serve black people. Daley said “I understand these people will in future obey the law”.

On October 29, 1954, Hugh Burnett, in the company of human rights activists Bromley Armstrong and Ruth Malloy went to Morley McKay's restaurant with a Toronto Telegram news reporter. They were denied service and as a result McKay was the first person to be charged under the Act. After a long legal battle, a reluctant McKay opened his restaurant to everyone.

The conflicting attitudes of white and black Dresden residents over the issue were recorded in the National Film Board's documentary the "Dresden Story" in 1954 and there have been many sympathetic study papers and books written on the subject in recent years. On July 31, 2010, a plaque was dedicated in downtown Dresden honoring Hugh Burnett and the National Unity Association. It reads:

"Between 1948 and 1956, the National Unity Association (NUA) of Chatham, Dresden and North Buxton, under the leadership of Hugh R. Burnett, waged a campaign for racial equality and social justice. Their efforts led to the passage of Ontario’s Fair Employment Practices Act (1951) and Fair Accommodation Practices Act (1954), and laid the groundwork for subsequent human rights legislation in Ontario and across Canada. Traditional Anglo-Canadian rights, such as freedom of association and freedom of commerce, had historically been interpreted to permit discrimination on grounds of race, colour or creed in providing services to the public. The NUA inspired recognition of freedom from discrimination as a fundamental principle; this led to a revolutionary change to the course of Canadian law and Canadian history. Hugh Burnett and the NUA were early pioneers in the articulation of equality rights for all Canadians, now constitutionally inscribed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Here's the rest of the story.

Racism  exists in all levels of life -- socially, politically and religiously. "Discrimination" dates back to pre-historic times when our ancestors banded together in groups for safety and mutual aid and to oppose any other group that may compete for necessary sustenance.

Contrary to what some Canadian historians, sociologists and moral philosophers would have us believe, racism was not exclusive to the quiet Kent County agricultural town of Dresden, Ontario, although the community with its solid Anglo Saxon base did, fairly or unfairly, come to symbolize social ills of the country in the 20th century.  Consider the words of Dr. Dominique Clement in his Canada's Human Rights History:  "In the 1950s the small town of Dresden, Ontario, was one of the most racially segregated communities in Canada."

My hope in publishing this site is to give some perspective to that kind of inflammatory statement.  I am a white man, a child of the 1930s and '40s who grew up perplexed and not fully understanding the subtle and not-too-subtle racial discrimination that I witnessed all around me in my hometown of Dresden.  Unlike so many who have tackled this subject after-the-fact and with the benefit of hindsight, I write from first-hand experience as a non-black who is compelled to rationalize and balance the story so that there can be a better understanding of the sides involved.  It makes a difference when you have lived the story and know the players.  There will be no attempt in any of this to justify individual actions.  I hope only to explain, perhaps for the first time, the mindsets that prevailed during this disturbing period.

I happen to believe babies are not born prejudiced...They are taught to be prejudiced by simulation.  Kids watch, listen and learn.  Parents in my childhood era, for instance, amused newborns with the racially offensive "eenie, meenie, miny, moe..." rhyme as they counted and pinched the toes of their little ones.  "The Story of Little Black Sambo" with its caricaturized illustrations of blacks, was for years as much a nursery reading staple as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.  

Prejudice in Canada dates back to the beginnings of its settlement and any look at racism in general should begin in the 17th century with the relations between Aboriginal peoples and European colonizers.  The European view of Aboriginal peoples was complex and ambivalent, ranging in seeing them as "noble savages" to considering them soulless barbarians.  Larger-scale settlement in Canada led to deterioration of early fur trade relations as Aboriginals became perceived as an impediment to economic development.

The number of people in Canada other than those of British, French or Aboriginal origin remained small until the end of the 19th century when large waves of immigrants arrived.  Some saw immigration primarily as a way of speeding up Canada's economic development while others worried about the social impact of non-British immigration.   French Canadians opposed open-door immigration on the grounds that such a policy would further erode the status of French Canada within Confederation.  Most English-speaking Canadians shared prejudices concerning the comparative desirability of immigrant groups.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white superiority was taken for granted throughout the Western world.  Many English-speaking Canadians believed that Anglo-Saxon peoples, and British principles of government, were the apex of biological evolution and that Canada's greatness depended on its Anglo-Saxon heritage.  I will reinforce this school of thought again as we take a look at the discrimination that reared its ugly head in Dresden and left a gray smudge on the town's otherwise proud history.

In the 1900s, assessment of an individual's desirability varied almost directly with the degree of conformation to the British culture and physicality.  British and American immigrants were regarded as the most desirable, followed by northern and western Europeans.  At the bottom of the desirability list were black and Asian immigrants who were considered inferior and unable to assimilate into Canadian society.  There was very much a stigma attached to the colour of one's skin, especially black and yellow.

I have written extensively about the treatment of First Nations children in government assisted Christian residential schools and the loss of Japanese Canadian rights during World War 11.  In a word, the Canadian record has been "dismal".
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD:  Canadian family assisting refugee slaves.  Oil on canvas painting by Charles T. Webber.

Black Canadians encountered significant prejudice in the pre-Confederation era.  By the 1860s, the 40,000 blacks in Canada included descendants of slaves in New France, Loyalists, Jamaican Maroons, American refugees from the War of 1812, and fugitives who came to Upper Canada to escape slavery.  Many Canadians were known to oppose slavery on moral grounds and assisted refugees from America by means of the Underground Railroad.  Black people in Canada were treated primarily as a source of cheap labour, but following the final abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833, they encountered fewer legal barriers.  However they still faced a great deal of social prejudice which lasted well into the 20th century.

Josiah Henson, born into slavery on June 15, 1789 in Maryland, was one of the early users of the aforementioned Underground Railroad.   As a youngster, he was separated from his parents, sold twice and maimed for life after being beaten.  In 1829, Henson arranged to purchase his freedom with money he earned by preaching to Methodist congregations.  Betrayed by his master, he was taken to New Orleans to be sold, but he managed to escape by fleeing north with his wife and four children, eventually crossing the Niagara River into Upper Canada on October 28, 1830.
Rev. Josiah Henson

Henson started his life in his new land working as a farm labourer and lay preacher in the Waterloo area.  In 1834, he moved to Colchester (Essex County) with a group of friends and established a Black settlement on land rented from the government, not far from a farm owned by my great grandfather Ebenezer Wright (1818-1900).  Henson would soon come in contact with Hiram Wilson, an American Anti-Slavery Society missionary. Wilson in turn introduced Henson to one of his friends, James Canning Fuller, a Quaker from New York With financial assistance from Wilson and a silent partner (no doubt Fuller), Henson purchased 200 acres in Dawn Township where he planned to build a self-sufficient community for fugitive slaves.

Under Henson's direction, the new Dawn Settlement became home to the British-American Institute, an all-ages manual school that trained teachers and provided a general education.  The school opened in 1842 "to cultivate the entire being, intellectual and moral powers," and to provide Black Canadians with skills they needed to prosper and to disprove the racist beliefs that Blacks were not capable of independent living.

The settlement grew to include several grist mills and a brickyard.  It is believed that Black slave refugees, using the locally-produced brick, were actually involved in the construction of at least one church and several buildings extant in downtown Dresden to this day.  Settlers cleared their land and grew crops, mainly wheat, corn and tobacco, and exported locally grown walnut lumber to Britain and the United States.

Henson purchased another 200 acres adjacent to the settlement where he lived with his family, eventually selling 100 acres back at a "discounted" price.  He continued to preach in the community church and served on the executive committee of the Institute along with Rev. Thomas Hughes, an Englishman, Anglican priest and abolitionist who was intimately connected to the broader history of anti-slavery work in Canada, the U.S.A. and Britain.

The British-American Institute developed administrative problems and in 1849 the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society took over its management.  The Institute continued for another 20 years, closing its doors for a final time in 1869.  As a result of the closure, many residents of the settlement (500 at the peak) either returned to the U.S. where slavery had finally been abolished or moved to other communities in Ontario.

Rev. Josiah Henson and his wife Nancy continued to live in Dawn for the rest of their lives and their homestead (Uncle Tom's Cabin) has been preserved as a heritage property and museum that attracts hundreds of visitors every year.

It is interesting to note further that one of the first white settlers to purchase land on the Sydenham River was Jared Lindsley in 1825.  In 1846 he sold his property to a Chatham merchant, Daniel van Allen, who had the foresight  to lay out a town plot. The Dawn Settlement, quite naturally provided the basis for a thriving community. A post office named "Dresden" was opened in 1854. The region's timber resources and the navigation facilities afforded by the Sydenham  fostered industrial growth. A county by-law of 1871 incorporated Dresden as a village with a population of about 750. Ten years later it became a town.

By the 1850s the community had attracted a number of enterprising white settlers from England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany in particular, bringing with them the financial wherewithal to invest in retail and manufacturing interests in addition to prejudices and deep-rooted opinions on the black race and the subservient role relegated to them in Canadian society.  Names such as Trerice, McVean, Wright, Hicks, Wiley, Webster, Baxter, Sharpe, MacDonald, Caister, Ribbie, Slater, Whitson, McConnell, McDonald, Laird, Aikin, Carscallen, Wells and Kimmerly were prominent in the town's early economical development and played leading roles in civic politics.  Without exception, these individuals were of British heritage and they influenced the minds and lifestyle of the citizenry. Black people who remained in the community were given employment as labourers and household maids and servants, but they were segregated as a minority in a town that was 80 percent Anglo-Saxon.

Potentially rich farmland in rural Dresden attracted immigrants from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Holland and Belgium, all becoming major contributors to the town's economy.  For the most part, European settlers were neutral to the issue of racial discrimination as they themselves faced the challenge of integration in the community and overcoming the stigma of being "displaced persons" or "DP's", as they were commonly referred to by elitist Anglo-Saxons.

Prejudice towards black people, passed down from one generation to another, remained status quo for the next 100 years in Dresden, as it did in other communities communities across Canada.  They were not employed in the mercantile trade, were not served in eating establishments, local barbershops and pool halls were off limits and they worshipped in their own church. With the exception of a half dozen families, blacks lived in north Dresden, on the "other side of the tracks" and on the other side of the Sydenham River, in humble abodes often lacking indoor facilities and proper heating.  Oddly enough, one native Indian family was included in the north Dresden mix.

There was a culpable tension between the races that lay just below the surface.  If astute, you could sense it.  Differences were undeniable and beyond skin colour, yet the result of skin colour. It was an inherited way of life for all concerned.

An extensive Macleans Magazine feature written by Sydney Katz, "Jim Crow Lives In Dresden", published November, 1949, farely accurately portrayed the Dresden story. It wasn't an altogether pretty picture (see excerpt below).

Teacher Jean King with two Grade 1 students in 1949. The caption accompanying the Macleanes photo awkwardly referred to the fact that children could sit together in school but they couldn't get their hair cut together in town. Particular attention was drawn to the boy's "sugar bowl" hair cut...Quite in style today, incidentally.

Black children in my time, however, were integrated in the public school system, belonged to the Dresden Boy Scouts and Girl Guides and were involved in all recreational activities.  The black students who completed their high school education generally moved to other larger centres to pursue their careers.  White kids in the 1940s were naively oblivious to the racial discrimination that existed in their home town and for the most part dismissed any biases that may have surfaced behind the closed doors of their homes. Black youths, likewise, did a good job of  hiding any resentment and sadness over the inequality that they were born into.

When it came to school activities, white and coloured (the term black was not used in those days) students pretty much knew where to draw a line.  It was extremely rare, for instance, to see a mixed race couple dancing together. Certain fraternization was simply off limits and discouraged by parents.  We ate lunch together in the school cafeteria and we baseball players drank from of the same water bucket.

If I had acted on an impulse to have a "coloured" girl friend, I know for a fact that my family would have disowned me.  For that very reason, I even kept secret at least one relationship with a white girl who was considered below my station.  Class very definitely mattered.  

Dresden high school student Ruth Lambkin pretty much summed up the attitude of her black peers when she said: "As for me, I don't go places I'm not wanted," the words reflecting rational resolve and acceptance.  A sad commentary on the times.

Admirably, there was no black militancy in Dresden unlike racial rioting and demonstrations in larger metropolitan centres south of the border and in the province of Nova Scotia. Memories of Africville and its destruction 40 years ago are still very much on the minds of people in Halifax.  

To my knowledge, there was only one minor act of racial vandalism in Dresden when several black teens vented themselves by barging into Jim Ford's pool room, breaking several pool cues and damaging one table.  I do not think that Ford ever officially laid charges with police.

"Discrimination in Dresden is different from the brand practised in the deep south of the U.S. We can live almost anywhere.  My neighbours are white on both sides.  We can go into all stores and the hotel.  My children can go to any school and join the (Boy) Scouts, but I have to drive them to Chatham or Wallaceburg for a haircut."  -- Hugh Burnett, 1954
Click on clippings to enlarge for reading.

My parents did not approve of racial segregation, but were sympathetic to the town merchants who chose to reject black clientele. My father, Ken Wright, was a barber and worked for 10 years with Jim Ford, the same Jim Ford who took bad press for closing his barber shop and adjacent pool room to black citizenry. Grace and Ken Wright were also close friends with Morley and Leonore McKay. Morley, of course, was the owner of McKay's Cafe and a central figure in the Hugh Bernett story, refusing to serve blacks and eventually being charged under the Fair Accommodation Practices Act.

Press reports labelled McKay as "a notorious and hot tempered violator," but locally he was known as a congenial solid citizen, loyal to his employees, a good family man and a Methodist. Ironically, his first family home in Dresden was on Queen Street East, next door to the Black's First Baptist Church.  He was also friendly to black people outside of his restaurant, which seemed to be a contradiction of the man who was dead set on not giving them service in his restaurant.  The son of Scotch parents Bethuel and Ada McKay, Morley served in World War 1 and rather than work in his father's livery stable after the war, he opened a confectionery in Dresden and eventually branched out into the restaurant business in the late 1930s.  He was the possessor of a self-admitted stubborn streak and insisted that it was his right to serve whomever he wanted in his restaurant.  

The defiant McKay was prepared to go to court to fight for his convictions on behalf of himself and salt-of-the-earth couple, Matthew and Annie Emerson, who operated the other restaurant in town that was singled out for sit-in tests by the National Unity Association.

As an aside, McKay's was the home of a rather unique by-invitation-only men's coffee club where local business owners congregated two, if not three, times a day.  The club was located in the rather spacious kitchen at the back of the restaurant where men would sit at two large tables and exchange gossip of the day and solve many of the world's problems. If a club member wanted a particular cut of meat that was not on the lunch menu, he could purchase it from the next-door butcher and one of McKay's three short order cooks would grill it up for him. It was not unusual for coffee club members to "pass the hat"  for charitable causes in town and as memorials for members and their families who had passed away...In retrospect, it was much like a service club but minus the formality. Women, of course, were not invited into the club so this may well have been another form of discrimination that could be associated with the restaurant.  One thing for sure, if a female ever partook of a cup of coffee in that back kitchen sanctuary, 95 percent of the male customers would have dropped out. 

"I have to break the law in order not to serve coloured people in my restaurant, and if I do I will lose all of my regular white customers," McKay admitted.  "It's a feeling I can't quite explain," he said in one magazine interview. "Do you know that for three days afterward (referring to black test attempts to be served in his restaurant), I get raging mad every time I see a Negro.  Maybe its like an animal who's had a smell of blood."

John Cooper, in his book Season of Rage, described McKay as having the appearance of a "retired boxer who had let himself go" and numerous newspaper reports talked about him wielding a meat cleaver on one occasion when refusing service to the two imported human rights activists.  While McKay admitted to feeling rage and was protective of his property, the man I knew, missing several fingers on one hand, could not fight his way out of a wet paper bag.  It was not his nature.  He was simply a man of his class-conscious upbringing, as so many in Dresden were at that time.  The meat cleaver, it would seem, was an effective prop meant to send a message, albeit a dangerous and threatening one.

I continue to have great respect for the two McKay daughters, Katherine and Patsy, and their late mother Leonore who remained gracious through their ordeal and never once spoke publicly, let alone express their emotions in private conversations with friends. I often think too, about what it must have been like for someone who believed so strongly in his stance and had the courage to take a stand on what he thought were his rights by birth, to in the end submit to laws of the land that told him he was wrong.  I have a feeling that McKay went to his grave saddened by the time in his life when he was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century.

After all was said and done, black people did not go in droves to McKay's and Emerson's restaurants, but there was satisfaction in knowing that they were free to do so -- if they wanted to.  The same could be said for barbershops.

It was always a mystery to me why a third restaurant almost directly across the street from McKay, was overlooked in the Fair Accommodations action. The business first opened by the Fitzgerald family, then operated by Reg Swainston and finally Martin's My-Choice of Chatham, was the popular hangout for the younger set in Dresden.  Martins would eventually allow blacks to sit with their friends in the establishment but they were not allowed to place orders.  In fact, I was sitting at the soda fountain one hot summer evening with a black friend after baseball practise when he unexpectedly asked a waitress if he could have a butterscotch milkshake.  "Sorry ....., but I cannot serve you," was the terse reply.  I never got to place my order...My friend and I promptly left the restaurant, never speaking a word about what had just happened. We did not make a federal case out of it, perhaps we should have.

I was embarrassed for both my friend and the waitress who had to deliver what must have been a difficult, heart-wrenching pronouncement. I can only imagine how each of them felt, but for different reasons.  The scenario ended happily, however, when they were united in marriage three or four years later.

Like McKay and the Emersons, barbers in town had difficulty adjusting to the new law too. Burnett, accompanied by Sid Blum, tested Jim Ford by walking into his shop and asking for a shave. "Now you know you're not going to get a shave here," was Ford's response.  When told that the law required him to provide service, he replied: "The hell with you and the law too."

Ford, the son of an English immigrant undertaker, Thomas C. Ford, was a likable, soft-hearted individual, strongly influenced by his white clientele, as was another soft-spoken barber, Bill Yontz who reluctantly took on the task of being the representative spokesman for fellow barbers in town.  Yontz was quoted more than once as saying that he was strongly influenced by his customers who warned him that if he ever opened his shop to blacks, he would lose their business.  In truth, it was a Catch22 situation that in the end required legislated legal intervention in lieu of town council's demonstrated reluctance to act definitively on the matter.
Barber Bill Yontz is pictured on the extreme right in this photo taken during filming of a panel discussion that was included in a National Film Board of Canada production, The Dresden Story, in 1954. Norma French, president of the Catherine McVean Chapter of the IODE is seated on the left side of the panel next to Dresden Public School principal, Robert Schultz. Commentator Gordon Burwash is shown in the centre of the photo with O & W. McVean business manage Horace Cluderay on his left. Other panel members were Dresden Times editor Vic Hodgson and Baptist Minister Rev. Charles Gower.  Sitting on the second panel were Hugh Burnett, Louise Carter, Rev. A. Talbot, Charles Hansor and Joseph Hanson. Extremely telling views on both side of the racial discrimination issue were expressed during the two-panel discussion.  The film was aired nationally by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  

It was not uncommon for white leaders of the community to deny the existence of racial discrimination in Dresden, dismissing it as being fueled by Communist infiltrators (the "Reds" were blamed for everything in those day) and insisting that town blacks actually had it quite good. Ontario Labour Minister Charles Daley even got in on the act blaming a "Communist group" for stirring up trouble in Dresden. Others worried about young black men being hell bent on marrying their daughters.  Store owners declared that it was just not good business to hire black employees.  The divide was wide and deep.

"There are no Communists among the coloured people of Dresden," Burnett countered on numerous occasions, "but I don't know how long we can assure that, if the discrimination practised there is to continue."

Almost everyone among the white population decried the fact that "outsiders" were taking an interest in their town and felt that they were being judged unfairly.  Town folk demonstrated displeasure with the Toronto Telegram and Toronto Star for giving extensive coverage to the issue, and promptly cancelled subscriptions.

Dresden dentist Harold French, a Sydenham Street neighbour, suggested that the issue was a tempest in a tea pot and that everyone should back up just a bit.

I cannot attest to press reports that blacks who dared attend services in white churches were unwelcome and were asked why they did not go to "their own" church.  It was always my impression that black people were quite content with their First Baptist Church and much preferred it to other churches in town. I do recall my father advocating the merits of inter-faith worship services and other mixed race activities in town, but there was an overall reluctance on the part of church leadership to go that far.  Churches in general were quite parochial at that particular time in history.

For me, Horace Cluderay was the hero of the discussion panel in conjunction with the National Film Board production of the Dresden Story when he suggested that the one and only solution to the racial problem in Dresden would be for the two sides to sit down together and to talk.  For some reason that kind of rational thinking was never pursued.  I am convinced that, given time, my generation would have come together in the spirit of conciliation and what is right, to bring about change.

Why is it that every social advancement has to be hard-fought, legislated and policed in order for it to be accepted in our society?  We can answer that question only after an honest soul searching.

Hugh Burnett's wife, Myrtle, was quoted as saying: "I think that it is bad for our children to come up with the feelings that they have. We're considered as second class citizens now, and we deserve to be if we do not do anything about it...We have to start standing up to fight for our rights or things will never get any better for us." And that is exactly what happened, thanks to the persistence of her husband.

It is pertinent to remember that we are talking about a town in a country that had a history of dragging its heals on social matters.  It was only after Word War 1 that women finally earned the right to vote, for heaven sake. As difficult as it is to believe today, it was only after pressure from the Women's Suffrage Movement that females got the federal vote in three stages: the Military Voters Act of 1917 allowed nurses and women in the armed services to vote; the Wartime Election Act extended the vote to women who had husbands, sons or fathers serving overseas; and all women over 21 were allowed to vote as of January 1, 1919.  

While my father was unable to welcome black males to his downtown barber's chair in the 1940s, the back kitchen in our home on Sydenham Street was good enough for him to give several black kids a trim on summer evenings following baseball games in neighbouring Kinsmen Park.  He was also instrumental in bringing the six Dresden barbers together to establish set prices for haircuts and to discuss possible options to the looming racial issue, meeting discreetly at least once with Hugh Bennett. What was discussed at that meeting was never divulged to me, but I have a pretty good idea.

Ken Wright
Ken Wright formed an inter-racial youth choir in Dresden, comprising young people from six churches. Joan Campbell, a gifted black high school student, was the lead soloist in the choir that won honours in the Kiwanis Music Festival in Chatham.  He was also a Boy Scout leader, a minor baseball coach, a trainer of several young boxers and a Presbyterian Sunday School teacher.  They did not erect plaques in Dresden for men like him. Due to health considerations and an opportunity to join a relative in a new business, he left barbering in 1950 and died in 1952 at 53 years of age, never seeing a resolution to racial discrimination in Dresden.

I am glad that my dad was spared the anguish of reading newspaper coverage labelling Dresden as "the most racially segregated community in Canada" and the attacks on his friend Morley McKay and former partner Jim Ford.  In a Chatham Daily News "Letter to the Editor" in 1947, he wrote: "This is a confusing time of conflicting emotions...Only the Christian way will lead to peace in our own hearts and in our nation." He echoed Hugh Burnett's theory that "You cannot force a man to love another but they can learn to love one another."

Several years ago, in memory of my father, I wrote a letter to the Chatham Daily News calling on the Region of Chatham-Kent council to issue an apology to all Dresden blacks who suffered racial discrimination in the past 100 years.  My thesis was that the present generation was duty bound to take ownership of the misguided actions of  previous generations.  Needless to say my appeal fell on conveniently deaf ears. Several Dresden residents did suggest to me, however, that an apology was not necessary -- they were both white. One black man wrote me to accept my apology.  Kind of tells you something, doesn't it?

The prevailing school of thought in Dresden today is that what is in the past should remain in the past.  A large majority of the current generation know nothing about racial discrimination and are appalled to learn that it ever existed. In a way, that is a good thing.  It is evidence that our white society is slowly outgrowing the racial prejudices of its forefathers. It is not always easy to forgive and forget, however, and I continue to worry about the carryover resentment that is surely harbored in the collective minds of many black families for the injustices endured by ancestors of generations past. 

I often wondered why neighbouring towns such as Wallaceburg, Petrolia, Thamesville, Ridgetown and Blenheim escaped racial scrutiny but I guess it was because very few blacks, if any, actually lived there.  The closest majority black community was some 25 miles away in North Buxton.  Dresden with its roots firmly set in Josiah Henson's Dawn Settlement, and the fact that it was Hugh Burnett's home town, made it a natural target.

Burnett, as it turned out, paid a price for his determination and dedication to the cause of human rights.  A carpenter by trade, he worked hard to establish his house contracting business. He had a reputation for building quality homes that were designed to last.  As racial tensions mounted, however, his business was boycotted in Dresden and his family received death threats.  Fearing for their safety, the Burnetts were eventually forced to move to Chatham.

Burnett did not live to fully appreciate the fruits of his determined fight for human rights and it was not until the year 2010 the previously mentioned plaque was placed in his honour on the front wall of the Municipal Building in downtown Dresden.  It is too bad that he had to sacrifice his life in its prime in order to bring about change to a deep-rooted mindset in Dresden that was more than 150 years in the making.  "He was ostracized," said fellow activist Bromley Armstrong. "That poor guy died almost a pauper for what he believed in."

Dresden today is the pretty, quiet, close-knit town that it always was.  It is estimated that 70 black families still live in the community, or about nine percent of the population.

Traditional mom and pop businesses are not as plentiful on St. George Street as they once were. There are a few vacant storefronts and McKay's Cafe and Jim Ford's barbershop/pool room are long gone.  There is only one barber shop

On the 60th anniversary of their infamous "sit-in" at McKay's Restaurant (Oct. 29, 1954), a CBC National News reporter and film crew brought former imported human rights activists Bromley Armstrong and Ruth Malloy (now well into their eighties) back to Dresden.  As the camera rolled, the feeble pair walked back and forth on the St. George Street block looking for the location of the restaurant.  They could not find it.  The pointless five-minute "flashback" segment that resulted from the visit was truly a waste of television air time.

A community park now graces the town where Annie Emerson's Restaurant was once located. The landmark Burns Bakery in north Dresden is now a welcoming and well-patronized family eatery... And a black man can get a good cup of coffee with white friends at the local Tim Horton's. Butterscotch milkshakes are a thing of the past.

Truly a "they lived happily ever after" ending to this one very long and at times painful story.

Justice prevailed.  Wounds heal and time marches on. Equality has its own reward!


History is filled with tales of injustice. It is only on rare occasions -with the clarity of hindsight and benefit of careful thought and measured reason - that a society comes together to undo the wrongs of the past.

Sixty-four years after the fact, Viola Desmond was offered an apology by the government of Nova Scotia for racial discrimination she was subjected to by the province's justice system. By means of background, this is Viola's story:

On November 8, 1946, she was driving through New Glasgow, N.S. when her car broke down. While repairs were being made Viola decided to catch a movie at a nearby theatre. She bought her ticket and went to sit in the ground level of the theatre, unaware of a policy allowing African-Canadians to sit only in the balcony. She was told to move and refused as there was no notice of the segregation policy posted in the theatre.

The theatre manager called a policeman and together they physically carried the woman from the theatre, injuring her leg and hip in the process. She was taken to the local jail and held overnight. The next day she was brought before a court and charged with tax evasion, of all things.

The "crime" she committed was sitting in the main section of the theatre while paying for a balcony ticket which was cheaper. The retail tax was calculated based on the ticket price so the authorities decided she owed one cent in tax for the pricier entrance fee. She was found guilty, fined $20.00 and forced to pay the theatre's six dollars in legal fees. Viola paid the fine but challenged the decision in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

She had not been told her rights when arrested, nor informed that she could hire a lawyer or question witnesses during her trial. Despite these and other errors of law, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction. The publicity surrounding the case and pressure subsequently applied by the fledgling Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and others, led to the province repealing its segregation laws, but not until 1954.

In delivering the province's apology, Premier Darrell Dexter called Ms. Desmond a visionary, pioneer and Canadian hero. "On behalf of the Nova Scotia government, I sincerely apologize to Viola Desmond's family and to all African-Nova Scotians for the racial discrimination she was subjected to in November 1946..." he added. She was also given a royal pardon.

However, all this was too late for the victim. Not long after the incident she closed her Halifax beauty parlour and moved to New York where she died in 1965 at the age of 50.

Upon reading this sad story, I was immediately reminded of my attempt to generate interest in an apology for African-Canadians who suffered well-documented discrimination in my hometown of Dresden during the first half of the last century. Reaction to my suggestion in the form of several Letters to the Editor published in the Chatham Daily News was minimal and mixed. Generally, I think, I was considered an excrement disturber who had his nerve in opening old wounds needlessly. There was an overriding consensus that, if racial discrimination existed all those years ago, it was no longer an issue in the community today.

My contention was that each generation should assume at least partial responsibility for the mistakes of the former and that apology can go a long way toward healing festering ills and deep resentments. My remarks were directed in particular, to the current regional council of Chatham-Kent which encompasses Dresden. I still think that I was right in what I attempted to do.

It has been pointed out that one quite striking feature of the politics of the last half-century has been the escalation of demands for redress, issued by groups who see themselves as the victims of historic acts of injustice. Present-day governments and their citizens are being asked to bear responsibility for the actions and policies of earlier generations, and to take a variety of steps to correct the harm and injustice that they perpetrated. Not all such demands have been successful, but many have been, and the costs incurred have in some cases been considerable. The claims in question have been very diverse, both in terms of who is making them and in terms of the acts singled out as standing in need of redress.

So let's return to the question whether the idea of inheriting responsibilities makes sense at all. Why do we find ourselves pulled in opposite directions on this question, sometimes wanting to affirm and at other times to deny that we can be held responsible for what our ancestors did? We can understand this, I believe, in terms of a conflict between liberal and communitarian intuitions. 

On the liberal side, we are drawn to the idea that we are only implicated in responsibility when as agents we have made some causal contribution to the outcome for which we are being held liable, and behind that stands the idea that we want to be in control of what happens to us: if we are held responsible for what other people, past or present, have done, then in one important respect we lose control of our lives. 

On the communitarian side, we find ourselves identifying with other people or other groups of people, and feeling vicarious pride or shame in what they do. With pride and shame comes responsibility.. Alasdair MacIntyre has expressed this well:

"…we all approach our own circumstances as bearers of a particular social identity. I am someone’s son or daughter, someone else’s cousin or uncle; I am a citizen of this or that city, a member of this or that guild or profession; I belong to this clan, that tribe, this nation. Hence what is good for me has to be the good for one who inhabits these roles. As such, I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation, a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations."

In other words, the communitarian intuition that supports the idea of inherited responsibility runs straight up against the liberal intuition that we can and should choose the relationships from which responsibilities spring, and this intuition is as firmly embedded as the other.

To justify taking responsibility for the past, we need to do more than simply point out that de facto people do often feel pride and shame in what their ancestors have done, and are sometimes willing to bear the resulting ramifications. We need to find arguments that will support the communitarian intuition, or at least its consequences, to the detriment of the liberal one.

In Dresden's case, I am not so naive as to expect to influence the thinking of those who are too young to remember racial discrimination in their midst. I had hoped, however, that those in my age bracket who witnessed racial injustices first-hand in the 1930s and '40s, talked about it in private, and felt the helplessness of adolescence in doing anything about it, would act on hindsight and find it in their hearts to join hands with others of like mind and say to their friends of colour: "I am so sorry for what you and your family had to go through in our time. On behalf of our generation, and generations past, I apologize."

Unlike the Province of Nova Scotia apologizing for one ugly act of racial discrimination and segregation 64 years ago, we are talking about blanket discrimination against hundreds of blacks in the Town of Dresden for more than a century.  That's why I created this site.  It is one man's way at least of taking responsibility and saying that I am sorry for injustices of past generations.

All of the above and $1.25 will not get you a cup of coffee at Tim Horton's today.  I do not expect any acknowledgements, maybe a few detractors.  That's the nature of the subject matter...Truth needs to be told...It has potential to hurt and offend in some instances but that does not mean we have to suppress it. This site is simply a collection of historical facts, personal observances and thoughts -- from my perspective.

As I say, it's a long story.  You had to be there for at least a part of it!  Old newspaper clippings do not tell the whole story.
Today a poster town for sense of community and resiliency.  
The turbulent years are long forgotten.

Blacks victims of Oil Springs race riot
This oil field in Lambton County was the site of Canada's first oil boom. 
Dresden (then Dawn) was just a sleepy settlement community when the oil boom was taking place, just to the north in Lambton County's Oil Springs in the mid 1800's. The oil fields were a destination of choice for many Black immigrants in those days. It has only been recently that the story was uncovered thanks to old newspaper clippings and records found in the Oil Museum of Canada at Oil Springs.

It behooves us to take a closer look at this up-to-now well-kept secret.

Christine Sydorko says a riot which drove African Americans from Oil Springs should not be swept under the carpet.

So, the enterprising education program coordinator of the Oil Museum of Canada put together a program for local educators to understand this part of Black history in Lambton County.

While some books chronicle the race riot which drove the Blacks from Oil Springs, it’s not a well known event. At the time, newspapers labeled the riot as “disgraceful.”

Sydorko says it would have been a cold and wet night on March 14, 1863, when a group of about 100 people gathered on one end of the village to form up, appoint a captain and then make their way to the black community on the outskirts of town.

An influx of labourers came to Oil Springs after 1858 to find work in the oil fields, including Black workers from Dresden, Chatham and Amherstburg.

But black labourers had difficulty getting a job, so they would work for reduced rates of pay and longer hours than their white counterparts. The practice raised tensions and the Black workers and their families kept their distance, living away from the established white community on Centre Road.

That night in March, racial tensions were at a boiling point after Mrs. Justin Bradley, the wife of the proprietor of the boarding house, the Royal George, was pushed off a sidewalk by a Black labourer.

The mob made their way to Centre Street and roused the black families from their sleep in the cold dark night. They told them to leave the community, and started torching their homes. Many Black families fled into the woods with only the clothes on their back. There was even speculation there could have been a lynching although newspaper accounts later said one person was seriously injured.

The mob accomplished their goal - the Black community left Oil Springs after the riot, returning to their communities in Kent and Essex counties.

While the details of the riot itself were recorded, Sydorko set to work to find out what happened after the riot.

She first heard of an account of the riot five years ago from a newspaper article. There was very little detail about the event. So, during the pandemic as many newspapers around the world were being digitized, Sydorko went to find more details.

While there were few accounts in Canadian publications, American newspapers reported on the riot including The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press and The Douglass Monthly, a newspaper published by famed abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.

Sydorko found a number of constables were sworn in that night to bring the riot under control. Three of the rioters were captured.

One man, John Lavins, an Irish widower from Lambton County was sentenced two years to the Provincial Penitentiary of Upper Canada, later renamed the Kingston Penitentiary. The penitentiary was in the process of being built, so Lavins would have spent his time behind bars on the construction crew.

Since Lavins was convicted of a felony, under English law, his land and goods would have been confiscated upon his conviction.

One other ringleader went to trial, but he was from a wealthy family, and was not convicted. Sydorko speculated his wealth allowed him not to be punished, whereas nobody liked the Irish in those days.

Finding the information about the aftermath wasn’t easy. There are few details of the court case, as records were stored in the Petrolia Town Hall, which was later consumed by fire. Sydorko gathered much of her information from the intake rolls at the Kingston Penitentiary.

And as she did her research, Sydorko still found race to be a barrier. Often there was push back with some people saying the riot didn’t happen or that Black people did not work in the oil fields of Oil Springs.

“This is just ridiculous,” she said.

Sydorko hopes the educational program which can be found on the Oil Museum’s website will be well used by schools and communities to help right the record.

“Canada could have been a welcoming haven, but we were not that,” she added, in reference to the many runaway slaves who sought freedom north of the border. “I no longer want it to be swept under the carpet.”