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22 May, 2012


Like the subject of its research, The Promised Land Project that has been underway in the Chatham-Kent area for the past five years, has been low-key and largely under the radar of public scrutiny.  That is not to say that the project is deserving of well-kept secret status -- quite the contrary.  It is the work of a number of enterprising university students, associates and devoted community volunteers whose reward will be in how the public eventually views Black history in this tight-knit corner of Southern Ontario.  I encourage my handful of Kent County readers, Dresden friends in particular, to support an initiate that will impact community heritage as we know it.  And, that will be a good thing.
An award winning and international best-selling Canadian author will be in Chatham-Kent, June 15, to share his experiences about writing and researching Black history in Canada.  Lawrence Hill will be the keynote speaker for the fifth annual Promised Land Symposium held at the old Capitol Theatre in Chatham, June 14-16.

The Promised Land Project is a five-year, $1 million research endeavour funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (involving several universities and community groups) to study the early black settlements in Chatham-Kent, including "Uncle Tom" Josiah Henson's historic Dawn Settlement that would ultimately incorporate the early beginnings of my hometown of Dresden and other small neighboring villages and hamlets.

Over the course of the five-year period which began in the summer of 2007, the PLP’s focus is to study the role and evolution of the early black settlements in the Chatham-Kent area. Their freedom experience has been a largely uncelebrated contribution to Canadian society.  The accurate but limited and limiting description of such communities as the “final stop on the underground railroad” points to an overarching historical ideology suggesting that this extraordinary heritage is just an ending to the story rather than viewing it as the birthplace of something significant and unique.

Project literature, for instance, points out that it is not widely known that when Canada became a country in 1867, the sixth-largest population group consisted of people of African descent. The prevailing Canadian national history still terms these citizens as “fugitive slaves” even though they had a profound effect on the fight to end slavery in the United States, on the implementation of civil rights in modern Canada, and on the social, cultural and economic development of this region.

"The Promised Land Project will begin by working to preserve the historical materials documenting the experience of blacks in the Chatham-Kent area.  The research team and dedicated community partners will create a comprehensive database of letters, tax records, journals, photographs, oral histories, family narratives, newspapers, and other important primary sources.  This catalogue will cover the period in history beginning with the American Revolution, when this Southern Ontario area first began opening up to settlers in Canada, through to the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement in Kent, and ending with an assessment of the contemporary black communities.

"The PLP will then facilitate the integration of these materials and fresh insight within a common body of knowledge created through the interaction of community and academic partners.  From this body of knowledge, the PLP team and community partners will develop new educational materials, create new community projects in the arts and in public history, further the debates on historical and contemporary manifestations of diversity in Canada and encourage new scholarship and teaching.  The overall aim is to highlight the historical importance of the Promised Land communities as an unrecognized yet pivotal story in Canada’s past, and draw attention to its current relevance as a model of multiculturalism predating the current discourse of multiculturalism in the global age."

As I have stated before, it is regrettable that the history that has been taught in schools over the course of the last century has been void of any reference to a period that was such an important and interesting part of our Canadian heritage.  Hopefully, the Promised Land Project will rectify much of that.  It is indeed a commendable exercise that will in time lend itself to enhanced understanding, appreciation and respect.

I look forward to reports and project papers that are not too scholarly for the average person's consumption, yet truly reflective of the time period; balanced, non-prejudicial, unemotional and unbiased -- precedent setting...The stuff of which ideally innovative Grade 10 texts will be made in the future.  Hopefully, Lawrence Hill will underline most of that in his keynote presentation to a representative cross-section symposium audience.

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