Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Black Threads in Our Tapestry

This is Black History Month, so I decided to tell about some little-known aspects of Saskatchewan’s history.

The first people in Saskatchewan were those we now refer to as Indigenous: The Dené, Cree, Saulteaux (pronounced So-toe), Dakota, Lakota and Nakota. Then came the French and Scottish fur traders and explorers. Some of them stayed, took wives of the people who were already here, and their descendants are known as Métis.

Then the land was opened up for homesteading and landless people from Eastern Canada, the USA and Europe were invited to come and settle this “new” land. Well, it was new to most white people anyway, and it was white people who were wanted as settlers.

The homesteaders came from many countries, languages and cultures and of necessity learned to live and work together to survive and prosper. They faced challenges of breaking the land, learning what crops to grow, getting those crops to market, surviving harsh winters and summer insect plagues. A few gave up and left, most couldn’t afford to leave so they stuck it out through all the hardships of the early years and eventually prospered.

The first black person to arrive in Saskatchewan was Alfred Shadd, from a prominent family in the Buxton settlement south of Chatham, Ontario. This was a settlement of people who had escaped slavery and travelled north on the underground railway to Canada. Alfred Shadd saw an ad for a teacher at Kinistino, Saskatchewan and came out in 1896 to fill that position. After a year he returned to Ontario to complete his studies to be a doctor, then came back and settled in Melfort as a doctor. Eventually he also operated a drug store, a newspaper and a farm where he raised Shorthorn cattle. He served on the town council and came very close to being elected to the provincial legislature. He died suddenly of appendicitis in 1915.

Lewis and Lillie LaFayette of Oskaloosa, Iowa arrived in Saskatchewan in 1906. Lewis first worked on a farm near Regina. At times during their first winter the temperature dropped to 60° below zero (Fahrenheit). In 1909 Lewis took up a homestead at Fiske, west of Rosetown and there he raised a family of ten. He farmed with horses at first, then purchased a Waterloo steam engine in 1913. Two of his brothers joined him at Fiske and for a number of years they ran an all-black threshing crew of 22 men, bringing workers from the USA and helping their neighbours throughout the district get their grain in the bin.

Lewis helped organize the first country school in his area, named Oskaloosa school. He helped organize the first telephone service and served on the telephone board. He was also involved in establishing a co-operative grain elevator. Descendants of Lewis and Lillie are now scattered over Saskatchewan and Alberta.

After the Civil War thousands of former slaves fled to the Oklahoma Territory where they could vote, go to school and live in relative freedom. Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and quickly introduced segregation and denied blacks the right to vote. Dozens of families decided to head north, lured by the promise of obtaining land by homesteading. Twelve families took up homesteads north of Maidstone, Saskatchewan, the others continued on to Amber Valley, Alberta.

About this time the Canadian government panicked at the idea of the Canadian West filling up with black settlers, and instructed immigration officials to refuse entry to blacks on health grounds, claiming the climate of the country was much too harsh for them to survive.

In 1912 the families north of Maidstone built the Shiloh Baptist Church. Joseph and Mattie Mayes were the best known members of the community; Mattie served as a midwife for many in the surrounding area. The descendants of the original settlers have all moved on by now, but the church and cemetery are maintained as heritage properties, a memorial to this group of black homesteaders.

A grandson of Joseph and Mattie Mayes relocated to North Battleford with his wife and raised a family of seven. They were the only black family in the city and experienced no prejudice. One daughter is now a nurse in Saskatoon, another is a veterinarian and their brother Reuben played pro football in the NFL from 1986 to 1993.

These were the pioneers, the first black threads in Saskatchewan’s tapestry. Many more have followed, at first mostly from Eastern Canada and the USA but in more recent years many have come from the Caribbean and Africa.

About fifteen years ago it was said that most of the workers at the broiler processing plant in Wynyard were people who had come here from Sudan as refugees. For a few years, our family doctor was a man who received his education in Kinshasa, D. R. Congo. He speaks French, English and five African languages. Now he is the main doctor at a walk-in clinic in Saskatoon. I have met two people of African origin who have written and published Christian books after settling in Saskatoon, one is from Zambia and the other from Nigeria.

The tapestry of our province is still being enriched by the addition of these black threads.

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Will Harriet Tubman appear on the Canadian $100 bill?

Earlier this year, the Bank of Canada asked the public for suggestions for a woman to appear on the $100 bill. The woman selected must nor be fictional, must have died at least 25 years ago and must have played a significant role in Canadian history. Harriet Tubman was one of the names proposed.

You see, Harriet Tubman’s main claim to fame was as a conductor on the Underground Railway, leading black people from slavery in the U.S south to freedom in Canada. She once said  “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, but I brought ’em all clear off to Canada.” St. Catherines, Ontario was her home from 1851 to 1861, the height of her activity as a conductor on the Underground Railway. This covers most of the time between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made life risky for black people anywhere in the USA, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Bethel Chapel BME church

This church, the Bethel Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, was Harriet Tubman’s home church in St. Catherines. It is considered to be the oldest black church in Canada and is still home to an active congregation. It has been designated a National Historic Site, due to its connection to Harriet Tubman.

York University in Toronto is home to the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diaspora.

It’s unlikely that Harriet Tubman will be selected for the $100 dollar bill. For one thing, I don’t believe she ever became a Canadian citizen. Yet she is well known in Canada and played a prominent role in our history. I suspect it is more likely that she will turn up on a Canadian postage stamp. I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t happened already.

Josiah Henson learns to read

It so haJosiah_Henson_bwppened that one of my Maryland friends arrived in this neighbourhood, and hearing of my being here, inquired if I ever preached now. I had said nothing myself, and had not intended to say any thing, of my having ever officiated in that way. I went to meeting with others, when I had an opportunity, and enjoyed the quiet of the Sabbath when there was no assembly. I would not refuse to labour in this field, however, when desired to do so; and I was frequently called upon, not by blacks alone, but by all classes in my vicinity, the comparatively educated, as well as the lamentably ignorant, to speak to them on their duty, responsibility, and immortality, on their obligations to their Maker, their Saviour, and themselves.

It must seem strange to many that a man so ignorant as myself, unable to read, should be able to preach acceptably to persons who had enjoyed greater advantages than myself. I can explain it only by reference to our Saviour’s comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a plant which may spring from a seed no bigger than a mustard-seed, and may yet reach such a size, that the birds of the air may take shelter therein. Religion is not so much knowledge, as wisdom; — and observation upon what passes without, and reflection upon what passes within a man’s heart, will give him a larger growth in grace than is imagined by the devoted adherents of creeds, or the confident followers of Christ, who call him Lord, Lord, but do not the things which he says.

Mr. Hibbard was good enough to give my eldest boy, Tom, two quarters’ schooling, to which the schoolmaster added more of his own kindness, so that my boy learned to read fluently and well. It was a great advantage, not only to him, but to me; for I used to get him to read to me in the Bible, especially on Sunday mornings when I was going to preach; and I could easily commit to memory a few verses, or a chapter, from hearing him read it over.

One beautiful summer Sabbath I rose early, and called him to come and read to me. “Where shall I read, father?” “Anywhere, my son,” I answered, for I knew not how to direct him. He opened upon Psalm 103. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name;” and as he read this beautiful outpouring of gratitude which I now first heard, my heart melted within me. I recalled the whole current of my life; and as I remembered the dangers and afflictions from which the Lord had delivered me, and compared my present condition with what it had been, not only my heart but my eyes overflowed, and I could neither check nor conceal the emotion which overpowered me. The words “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” with which the Psalm begins and ends, were all I needed, or could use, to express the fullness of my thankful heart.

When he had finished, Tom turned to me and asked, “Father, who was David?” He had observed my excitement, and added, “He writes pretty, don’t he?” and then repeated his question. It was a question I was utterly unable to answer. I had never heard of David, but could not bear to acknowledge my ignorance to my own child. So I answered evasively, “He was a man of God, my son.” “I suppose so,” said he; “but I want to know something more about him. Where did he live? What did he do?” As he went on questioning me, I saw it was in vain to attempt to escape, and so I told him frankly I did not know. “Why, father,” said he, “can’t you read?”

This was a worse question than the other, and if I had any pride in me at the moment, it took it all out of me pretty quick. It was a direct question, and must have a direct answer; so I told him at once I could not. “Why not,” said he. “Because I never had an opportunity to learn, nor anybody to teach me.” “Well, you can learn now, father.” “No, my son, I am too old, and have not time enough. I must work all day, or you would not have enough to eat.” “Then you might do it at night.” “But still there is nobody to teach me. I can’t afford to pay anybody for it, and of course no one can do it for nothing.” “Why, father, I’ll teach you. I can do it, I know. And then you’ll know so much more, that you can talk better, and preach better.”

The little fellow was so earnest, there was no resisting him; but it is hard to describe the conflicting feelings within me at such a proposition from such a quarter. I was delighted with the conviction that my children would have advantages I had never enjoyed; but it was no slight mortification to think of being instructed by a child of twelve years old. Yet ambition, and a true desire to learn, for the good it would do my own mind, conquered the shame, and I agreed to try.

But I did not reach this state of mind instantly. I was greatly moved by the conversation I had had with Tom — so much so that I could not undertake to preach that day. I passed the Sunday in solitary reflection in the woods. I was too much engrossed with the multitude of my thoughts within me to return home to dinner, and spent the whole day in secret meditation and prayer, trying to compose myself, and ascertain my true position. It was not difficult to see that my predicament was one of profound ignorance, and that I ought to use every opportunity of enlightening it.

I began to take lessons of Tom, therefore, immediately, and followed it up, every evening, by the light of a pine knot, or some hickory bark, which was the only light I could afford. Weeks passed, and my progress was so slow, that poor Tom was almost discouraged, and used to drop asleep sometimes, and whine a little over my dullness, and talk to me very much as a schoolmaster talks to a stupid boy, till I began to be afraid that my age, my want of practice in looking at such little scratches, the daily fatigue, and the dim light, would be effectual preventives of my ever acquiring the art of reading.

But Tom’s perseverance and mine conquered at last, and in the course of the winter I did really learn to read a little. It was, and has been ever since, a great comfort to me to have made this acquisition; though it has made me comprehend better the terrible abyss of ignorance in which I had been plunged all my previous life. It made me also feel more deeply and bitterly the oppression under which I had toiled and groaned; but the crushing and cruel nature of which I had not appreciated, till I found out, in some slight degree, from what I had been debarred. At the same time it made me more anxious than before to do something for the rescue and the elevation of those who were suffering the same evils I had endured, and who did not know how degraded and ignorant they really were.

The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, first published in 1849

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