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16 September, 2010


It was quite by accident that I stumbled across a 56-year-old piece of film the other day.  It gave me a new perspective on a period in the history of my former   hometown to which I was privy but far too young to fully comprehend.

The film, "Dresden Story", was a historic and widely distributed production by the National Film Board of Canada that in 1954 sampled the attitudes toward racial discrimination against black people and brought the Kent County community kicking and screaming into the national spotlight.

By means of very brief background, if you were black and living in Dresden, or just visiting at the time, you could not obtain service at many of the downtown business locations.  This in a country that had abolished slavery decades before the American Civil War and that saw itself as a proud and welcoming destination for thousands of slaves who had escaped bondage through the Underground Railroad in the 1850s.

While many Canadians turned a blind eye to racial discrimination, often denying its existence, it was unquestionably present in the small town of Dresden that today still has a population under 2,800.  "The Dresden Story" began in the nineteenth century when the town lay at the end of the "underground railroad" for fugitive slaves and a substantial number eventually settled in the area.  Josiah Henson, upon whose life Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based, of course, is buried nearby.  

By the end of World War II blacks constituted close to 20 per cent of the approximately 1,700 inhabitants, but several restaurants, barber shops and pool halls habitually denied service to them (sustained perhaps by the traditional British freedoms of association and commerce, which were interpreted to mean that a proprietor had the right to decide who to serve and who to hire).  Blacks were able to attend only one place of worship in town, the Queen Street Baptist Church.  Very quietly and deliberately, the town had become one of the most racially segregated communities in Canada.

One of the Dresden area blacks to champion civil rights in the town was Hugh Burnett, a World War II army veteran who owned his own carpentry business. In 1943 he sent a complaint to the federal Minister of Justice about racial discrimination in one Dresden restaurant in particular. He was informed that the government could do nothing. Then, about 1948, he launched a lawsuit against the prominent restaurant owner, although he did not proceed with it, probably because in the wake of the pre-war Supreme Court decision of Christie v. York the law provided little leverage.

At about this time, Burnett joined with a number of other Dresden-area blacks to form an organization called the National Unity Association (NUA).  Just prior to the municipal election of 1948 a delegation from the NUA asked Dresden’s town council that a non-discrimination policy be a condition of local business licensing. Although a number of Ontario municipalities had already passed anti-discrimination bylaws, in Dresden the proposal moved forward with what has been described as glacial slowness.

The white segment of the town's population, for the most part, chose to ignore the issue -- the majority going so far as to deny that it existed at all.  The sentiment:  "We have nothing against coloured people...They just have to know their place," was frequently repeated.  There was also a commonly-held belief that the flames of the discrimination movement were being fanned by "trouble-making outsiders -- the Jewish community and Communists."  The prevailing consensus was that drawing attention to the matter did more harm than good.  Stories in Toronto newspapers, the Windsor Star and Macleans Magazine were vigorously protested.

So it was that the appearance of a National Film Board crew in town in 1954 was generally frowned on.  In spite of local resistance and difficulty in rounding up opinions of local citizens, commentator Gordon Burwash was finally able to organize two discussion panels for the regular CBC show "On The Spot"and some interesting and telling opposite viewpoints resulted in the above 30-minute film production.  In the end, the rights and wrongs of the issue were left to the viewer to decide.

In viewing the film many times over in the past couple of days and with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, I experienced mixed emotions.  I was nostalgically drawn back in time by views of Dresden's downtown area, the high school that I attended and familiar faces of town folk, many of whom have long since died. 

Not too surprisingly, the two panels disagreed on the origin of racial discrimination in the town.  The black panel was consistent in the belief that it had been going on for more than 100 years while the white panel felt that it was something that had come to light only in recent times.

I was impressed with the calm, rational demeanor of the black panel members in explaining their side of the issue.  The common thread running through their comments was opposition to colour-bar practices and simply the fact that they wanted to be treated as equals in the community in which they lived, as was their legislated right.

Mr Burnett, a member of the black panel, conceded that "you can't make a law to make one man love another, but they can certainly learn to love one another."  It was generally agreed that education would be the key to overcoming any racial ignorance.

The white panel, consisting of a Baptist minister, several businessmen, a school principal, a newspaper editor and one of my next door neighbours, struggled to articulate the root-cause of discrimination in the community and appeared to be carefully guarded in their comments.  The school principal who taught me in Grade 8 and for whom I had great respect, disappointingly alluded only to outside interests aimed at causing trouble in the community but when asked by the panel moderator if he had definitive knowledge of outside involvement responded: "No, I haven't."

My neighbour suggested that one of the concerns in the town was that of inter-marriage, prompting the minister to say that his church was not against mixed-race marriage but that generally he would counsel against it.  "In the end, it is up to a couple to make their own choice," he added. 

One of the business representatives, a barber, said he felt that he had been placed in a bind because if he allowed coloured people into his shop he would lose his white customers.  When pressed to be more specific on the actual number of customers who had verbally threatened to withdraw their patronage, he was only able to offer:  "...A substantial number," later adding that many were "fine Christians".

There seemed to be unanimity amongst the six white panel members that no one could be forced to do something (i.e. the business owners refusing service) that is against their personal beliefs, "rightly or wrongly" as my soft-spoken neighbour put it.

Interestingly business executive Horace Cluderay, in a closing comment to the expressionless and sober white panel, presented long-ignored food for thought:  "The only solution, as I see it, is to sit the sides down in fellowship and brotherhood to discuss matters in a reasonable way as Christians..."

The film was produced in the very early stages of television news commentary, but it was well done and balanced considering the resistance to it in Dresden at the time.  It is a genuine piece of history that accurately reflects the attitudes and opinions that prevailed as late as the mid 1950s in an otherwise quiet, benevolent Christian community.  The film is worth viewing now in the light of passage of time and conditions as they exist in society today.

In the end, it took hard-fought litigation to ensure that discrimination in Dresden would come to an end.  I am not aware of the sides ever sitting down to work out their differences and misconceptions.  Blatant discrimination was suppressed and racial equality just seemed to evolve with the passage of time.  Several plaques have only recently been erected in town to recognize the fight for equality and in particular the role played by the activist Hugh Burnett.

It should be noted that Burnett, falsely accused of  Communistic leanings, was finally forced to leave town in the wake of a business boycott and threats to his life and that of his family.  He is said to have died a broken man.

At the risk of awakening old injustices, but in a spirit of true conciliation and healing, it is still not too late for the Chatham-Kent municipal council of the day to issue an official apology to the surviving members of the black community for the racial discrimination suffered by them and members of their families. It would be the right(s) thing to do!  I would be interested to hear from other Dresden natives on this suggestion.

*As noted on my Facebook page:
   We may not have been directly implicated in many of the social ills of the past and present, but by the nature of association we should accept the responsibilty of lending ourselves to the ultimate healing process for the benefit of all mankind.

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