The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth

In celebration of Emancipation Day earlier this week, guest blogger Wayne Kelly of the Ontario Heritage Trust shares the story of this special day, celebrated annually at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario.

By Steven Cook

His name was Walter Perry. They nicknamed him “Mr. Emancipation.” Born in Windsor, Ontario, in 1899, this great-grandson of slaves created what some would refer to it as “the Greatest Freedom Show on Earth,” a celebration of Emancipation Day that drew thousands of spectators to his hometown from both sides of the Canada/U.S. border. Frustrated with the brawling that previous festivities had become known for, Perry reorganized Windsor’s Emancipation Day event in 1935. “I called together a group of forward-thinking Americans and Canadians, and we had the nucleus of the celebrations as we know them today. There would be parades; midway rides; children in papier-mâché masks and convertibles full of waving, young girls, each vying for the title of Miss Sepia in the weekend’s beauty contest. The event even attracted the talents of Motown, with performances by The Supremes and Steveland Morris — better known as Stevie Wonder.

For years, Perry’s Freedom Show was one of the largest celebrations of Emancipation Day — the end of slavery in Canada and the British Empire. Many communities in Ontario began celebrating Emancipation Day after the Abolition of Slavery Act, which became law on August 1, 1834. The day was especially popular in places where freedom seekers from plantation slavery in the U.S. settled, notably Sandwich (now Windsor), Toronto, Hamilton and Owen Sound.

Freedom Show-compressed
The Documentary, The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth, tells the story of Windsor’s Emancipation Day celebrations. Image courtesy of the Ontario Heritage Trust.

In the 19th century, Emancipation Day was an important expression of identity for the Black community and anti-slavery activists. It gave people the opportunity to celebrate the end of slavery in Canada and the British Empire with parades, music, food and dancing. The day also provided a vehicle to lobby for Black rights in Canada and the abolition of American slavery.

Celebration of Emancipation Day continues in Ontario to this day. This year, Owen Sound marked its 154th anniversary as the longest continuously running Emancipation picnic in North America. Sadly, this year, due to lack of financial support, Windsor’s Emancipation Day festivities have been postponed until 2017. The documentary, The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth, offers a fascinating glimpse into this city’s wildly successful celebration of freedom, with a primary focus on the years 1936 to 1968.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario, has also revived the spirit of Emancipation Day, celebrated many years ago at the Dawn Settlement by Josiah Henson and other freedom seekers.

Josiah Henson_Sepia
Josiah Henson, founder of the Dawn Settlement in Dresden, Ontario. Image Courtesy of the Ontario Heritage Trust.

Recognized internationally for his contribution to the abolition movement, Josiah Henson asserted his leadership as a preacher and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He worked with energy and vision to improve life for the Black community in Upper Canada (now Ontario). After escaping slavery in Kentucky, Father Henson attained the status of leader within the Underground Railroad community of Southwestern Ontario. In 1841, he co-founded the British American Institute, a vocational school for Underground Railroad refugees. The Dawn Settlement, comprised mostly of Black settlers, grew around the school. Harriet Beecher Stowe used Josiah Henson’s memoirs, published in 1849, as reference material for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass visited Josiah Henson and the Friends of Freedom at the Dawn Settlement in 1854 to celebrate with them the 20th anniversary of British Emancipation. Douglass wrote:

“The day was full of promise for a joyous and profitable celebration at Dawn of West India Emancipation. At ten o’clock, people began to pour in from the vicinity, attired in their neatest and best — colored people nearly all. They knew what they were about. A bitter experience of slavery in the States had taught them the value of liberty, and they embraced gladly the opportunity this celebration afforded them of manifesting their sense of its value.”

Network of Sites_Uncle Tom's Cabin_Dresden_ON
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario. Photo: Ontario Heritage Trust.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site — a property of the Ontario Heritage Trust — held its 12th annual celebration of Emancipation Day on July 30, 2016 with an inspiring program of gospel music, storytelling and dance. Admission is free to this annual event, thanks to the continued support of the RBC Foundation.

Through the efforts of community leaders and supporters today, the spirit of trailblazers like Walter Perry, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson lives on — a community spirit celebrating freedom and human rights.

 

Steven Cook is Site Manager, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Ontario Heritage Trust.

National Trust members receive free admission to Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site and to other historic properties in Canada and around the world. Click here to learn more.

Note: This post was previously attributed to Wayne Kelly in error.


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