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Black History Month in Canada

Celebrating the history of entrepreneurship and innovation among Black Canadians

Annually in February, there is a wide array of celebrations, events, and activities commemorating Black History Month. Here in Canada, it is an opportunity to honour the legacy of people of Black, African, and Caribbean heritage in our country, from the seventeenth century to the present.

African American historian Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926. By the 1970s, it had evolved into Black History Month in both the United States and Canada. In December 1995, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month, responding to a motion introduced by the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine. Augustine’s motion received unanimous support in the House of Commons.

As the Department of Canadian Heritage has stated, “The 2024 theme for Black History Month is: ‘Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build.’ This theme celebrates the rich past and present contributions and accomplishments of Black people in Canada, while aspiring to embrace new opportunities for the future.

“The theme aligns with the 10th year of the International Decade for People of African Descent and recognizes that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected.” (February is Black History Month – Canada.ca)

Without a doubt, there are many Black Canadian contributions and accomplishments worthy of celebration! When Black Canadian history is discussed—if indeed it even is discussed—the focus tends to be on the Underground Railroad, freedom movements, and the ongoing struggle for human rights. These conversations focus far too infrequently on Black Canadians’ long history of entrepreneurship and innovation. Here are some examples worth celebrating from Windsor-Essex:

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Henry and Mary Bibb are often described as abolitionists, community leaders, and journalists—which they were. They have been designated Persons of National Historic Significance for the incredible work they did in Sandwich—opening a school, administering the Refugee Home Society which assisted formerly enslaved people to own property and therefore attain the right to vote, and of course, establishing the Voice of the Fugitive newspaper, the first sustained example of the Black press in Canada. We don’t often consider the Bibbs entrepreneurs, but the newspaper was indeed a business—a publication that attracted readers in Canada West (Ontario) and multiple U.S. states from 1851 to 1854. Nor do we typically consider how remarkable it was that Mary Miles Bibb, a Black woman living in a challenging environment to say the least, opened up a successful fashion business in Windsor in the 1850s, advertising that she was selling the latest styles from Paris and London.

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The inspiration for a new Canada Post stamp released on January 29th, Mary Ann Shadd is known as a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada, a member of the U.S. Women’s Hall of Fame, an abolitionist, speaker, writer, teacher, journalist, Civil War recruiter, eventually lawyer, and more. All of these exploits have resulted in multiple plaques and murals, sculptures in Windsor and Chatham, a school and street in her name in Toronto, a post office in her name in Delaware, a Google Doodle, and more. Mary Ann’s time here in Windsor included the establishment of one of Canada’s first integrated schools, publishing a monograph which surely positions her as one of Canada’s earliest women writers, and founding the Provincial Freeman. In so doing, she became the first woman in Canada and the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper… which had a successful run from 1853 to 1859. Later in life, while running her law practice in Washington, DC, she would found a Black women’s investment club, among the first of its kind.

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James L. Dunn was born in St. Thomas to formerly enslaved parents from Kentucky. The Dunn family moved southward to Windsor when he was a young adult. Living in freedom with access to education, James rose from the position of clerk in a paint and varnish company to the owner, renaming it Dunn Paint and Varnish Company. His affluence did not protect him and his family from racial injustice, however: his unsuccessful lawsuit against the Windsor Board of Education in 1883 for segregationist practices is a key example of that. Yet James persevered, becoming the first Black Windsorite elected to the school board and to the town council, working to change policies from the inside. A school in Windsor, built in the former International Playing Card Co. factory on Mercer Street, bears his name and he is honoured on a mural outside WindsorEats.

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Elijah McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario to formerly enslaved parents from Kentucky. He was so successful academically that he had an opportunity to train as a mechanical engineer in Scotland. Returning from Scotland, he found that racism prevented him from finding work as an engineer, so he became a railroad labourer. Elijah’s observations of inefficiencies as well as health and safety risks in the railroad industry led him to invent the lubrication cup—a device that provided constant lubrication to train engines so that trains did not have to stop for engines to be oiled manually. This was the first of 57 patents in Elijah McCoy’s name… a name which now graces a street in Detroit and the Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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Delos Rogest Davis arrived in Essex County as a child with his parents via the Underground Railroad. Having access to freedom and education, he soared, becoming a teacher before pursuing legal studies. Unable to find an articling placement in order to complete his legal training, Delos was undeterred: he succeeded in having two pieces of provincial legislation passed, enabling him to take the bar exam and to become a lawyer. He was the first former freedom seeker to become an attorney and only the third Black Canadian to do so. Highly successful, with law offices in Amherstburg and Windsor, he would eventually be designated a King’s Counsel—reputedly the first Black lawyer in the British Empire to receive that honour.

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Thornton and Lucie Blackburn are best known for their harrowing escape from slavery in Kentucky to Detroit, where their recapture by former enslavers led to the Blackburn uprising of 1833, Detroit’s first “race riot.” Escaping across the river, they were jailed in Sandwich while an extradition order was entertained by the colonial authorities of Upper Canada. The government’s refusal to send them back to face re-enslavement was an important precedent that secured the liberty of many subsequent freedom seekers in Canada and, some would say, impacted our national refugee policy. Following their ordeal, the Blackburns moved to Toronto where they established Toronto’s very first cab company—horse and buggy-based of course. They used their wealth to invest in industries that would employ fellow freedom seekers, properties where freedom seekers could be housed, and many philanthropic endeavours. Today the Blackburns are Persons of National Historic Significance whose names grace the conference centre at George Brown College.

The McDougall Street Corridor, Windsor’s traditional Black neighbourhood in the city core, has been receiving a lot of attention lately. In the conversations taking place about the once thriving residential and business district and its dismantling due to urban renewal policies prioritized by the City of Windsor and federal government, let us not forget the excellent examples of Black entrepreneurship that existed in the Corridor prior to its destruction: from the Black-owned Walker House Hotel to the bustling Frontier Social Club to the Fellowship of Coloured Churches Credit Union to the Armstead Athletic Club, and so much more.

Here are some examples of Black Canadian entrepreneurship and innovation from other parts of Canada:

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Mifflin Gibbs, a free person of African descent from the United States, is remembered chiefly as the first Black person elected to public office in British Columbia when he won a seat on the Victoria City Council in 1866, but he was also a successful owner of multiple businesses as well as a delegate to the Yale Convention, an important step in the process of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation.

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William Peyton Hubbard, born to formerly enslaved parents from Virginia, is remembered primarily as Toronto’s first Black alderman, but he also patented and invented the successful commercial baker’s oven, the Hubbard Portable.

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Viola Desmond, the only woman other than Queen Elizabeth II to be featured on Canadian currency, is best known for challenging racial segregation at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946, and for her subsequent insistence on pursuing redress… resulting in a posthumous pardon by the Government of Nova Scotia and many other honours. However, it should also be remembered that prior to the 1946 incident, Viola was a salon owner, the owner of a beauty school, and someone who started her very own successful company offering makeup and hair products to women of African descent.

The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, an all-Black ice hockey league established in 1895, featured Black hockey teams across the Atlantic provinces. Athletes of the CHL are credited with innovations that changed the face of hockey for everyone, including butterfly goaltending and the slapshot.

Whether here in our region or throughout Canada, there are so many extraordinary stories of Black Canadians’ contributions, including inspiring examples of innovation and entrepreneurship. February is a great time to learn more about this rich history! For a list of events and activities honouring Black History Month in Windsor-Essex, please visit amherstburgfreedom.org

Editors Note: This content precedes this blog post written by Irene Moore Davis and was taken from the WETechAlliance YouTube page in 2023. Learn more about the Celebrating Black Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Inventors webinar here.

In honour of Black History Month in 2023, WETechAlliance and the Southwestern Ontario Black Entrepreneurship Network (SWOBEN) were pleased to welcome the President of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, Irene Moore Davis, who shared why Black History is celebrated and the powerful impacts innovations from Black inventors have made throughout the world.

You can watch the virtual event below:


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Irene Moore Davis is an educator, historian, writer, podcaster, and community advocate who speaks and writes frequently about equity, diversity, inclusion, and African Canadian history. She is a graduate of the University of Windsor, Western University, and Queen’s University, and currently teaches at St. Clair College and Huron University College. Irene’s published work has included poetry, history, and journalism. Her documentary producer credits have included the award-winning The North Was Our Canaan (2020) and Across the River to Freedom (2023). She was also featured in the Discovery Channel mini-series Secrets of the Underground Railroad and on the CBC series Black Life: A Canadian History.

Irene fulfills community roles including President of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, Programming Chair at BookFest Windsor, co-host of the All Write in Sin City podcast, co-founder of Black Women of Forward Action, co-host of the YourTV television program Talkin’ Real Melanin, member of the board of Canterbury College, and member of the University of Windsor Board of Governors. Nationally, Irene serves on the Dismantling Racism Task Force as well as on the Strategic Planning Working Group of the Anglican Church of Canada.

In 2022, Irene was the recipient of the Harriet Tubman Award for Commitment to a Purpose from the Ontario Black History Society and was named to the 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women. Irene resides in Windsor, Ontario, with her husband, Rodney Davis.

WEtech Alliance has served as a catalyst for technology and innovation in the Windsor-Essex and Chatham-Kent, Ontario regions since 2011. We’re a non-profit organization that provides entrepreneurs and companies with business services, training, I.P. and commercialization support, mentorship and strategic connections to help bring new ideas to market, scale to the next level and build a dynamic culture and a community of innovation.

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