As Emancipation Day approaches, it is worthwhile to reflect on the meaning that Emancipation once held for people in Windsor-Essex County and beyond. When people talk about the heyday of “the Greatest Freedom Show on Earth,” what they often describe is the annual parade, the midway carnival, the Miss Sepia Pageant, talent shows and of course the famous barbeque pit.
They often state that the festival drew thousands of participants each year from Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, New York, and other places. What is sometimes lost amid these fond recollections is the organizers’ focus on social justice and the fact that this was a festival designed both to uplift people of African descent and to pave the way for improved race relations.
When the British American Association of Colored Brothers (BAACB) was formed in 1935, with Walter “Mr. Emancipation” Perry among its founders, the aim was to revive Windsor’s Emancipation Celebration in a dignified and appropriate way. In the 1957 Letters Patent of the BAACB, the first of the identified objects was “to assist in developing the interests of the Negro, including the promotion of amicable relations and understanding between the Negro and other races and within the Negro race.”
As of 1941, programs were published in conjunction with the annual celebration. By 1948, these had morphed into a full-fledged magazine, Progress. Perry’s annual editorials yield clues about the intent of the festival.
In 1947 Perry wrote, “The colored race is now coming into its complete freedom. For most of the past 115 years, we were domestics or laborers…. Today we are working in harmony with our white brothers, matching them in many fields, surpassing them in others. Privileges of higher education are ours for the asking…. In medicine, music, science, industry, business, professions, the world of entertainment, sports, color no longer stands in the way of success.”
In the 1949 edition, Perry emphasized the festival’s importance to intercultural relations: “At no other place on earth, we are convinced, could so many peoples of divergent colours and faiths and customs meet, rub shoulders and have fun together, without one single instance of discord.”
In 1953 Perry wrote, “Each year… we issue a call to men of good faith to join the crusade of interracial understanding….. Answer this call, not by word of mouth; not by loud and lavish display; but by your actions in your day-to-day living.” He added, “We like to think these celebrations have helped in some small way…. It is our aim and ambition to show our people in the light in which they deserve to be shown…. As an enlightened, advanced, educated, thinking, progressive, patriotic people.”
Perry and the BAACB used the publication to encourage Blacks to support Black-owned and Black-friendly businesses as well as to get involved in causes such as the American civil rights struggle. The publication shone a light on injustice such as unfair hiring practices, and highlighted the achievements of people of African descent within Canada and beyond. To this end, there were articles regarding people such as physician Dr. H.D. Taylor, Windsor City Solicitor James Watson, and the first two Black nursing graduates in Windsor, Colleen Campbell and Marian Overton. The BAACB also offered annual freedom awards to individuals who had improved race relations in the Detroit-Windsor area. Recipients over the years included Windsor police detective Alton Parker, Deputy Reeve of Amherstburg, George McCurdy, longtime activist and chair of the Windsor Board of Education, Dr. Henry D. Taylor, and legendary labour leader Walter Reuther.
For many years, the organizers brought in prominent speakers to enlighten and inspire festival participants. These individuals informed the audience about what was happening in other parts of the African Diaspora and encouraged African Canadians to see themselves as part of a larger community, working towards the same goals. Other than former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1954), the list of Emancipation speakers reads like a who’s who of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s African American intelligentsia, including William Holmes Borders (1944, 1949, 1953, 1959), Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1945 and 1954), Archibald J. Carey, Jr. (1947, 1948, 1952), Mary McLeod Bethune (1954), Benjamin Mays (1955), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1956), Lester Blackwell Granger (1958), Fred L. Shuttlesworth (1962), Wyatt Tee Walker (1963), Benjamin Hooks (1965), Carl B. Stokes (1966), and Ralph Abernathy (1973.) Julian Bond was scheduled to speak at the 1967 celebration which was sadly cancelled in the wake of the Detroit Riots.
Through the Emancipation Celebration, Walter Perry and the BAACB sought to show people of African descent “in the light in which they deserved to be shown.” They achieved this goal through motivational articles in Progress, through awards to those who were moving people of African descent forward, through profiles spotlighting Black businesses and professionals, and through the powerful and inspiring African American speakers who on an annual basis were placed before an audience who might never otherwise have heard them. These aspects of Emancipation, too, should not be forgotten.
Irene Moore Davis
Essex County Black Historical Research Society