Technology brings the work of the first African-American newspaper editors in North America back to life
“One morning about 2 o’clock, I took leave of my little family and started for Canada. This was almost like tearing off the limbs from my body. When we were about to separate, Malinda clasped my hand exclaiming, “Oh my soul! My heart is almost broken at the thought of this dangerous separation. This may be the last time we shall ever see each other’s faces in this life, which will destroy all my future prospects of life and happiness forever.”
– Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave (1849), by Henry Bibb
Henry Bibb, and thousands of other refugee slaves, made their homes in Windsor and Essex County. For a long time, this area was the North Star sung about in African American slave gospels; the last stop on the long journey on the Underground Railroad, thanks to the British Empire abolishing slavery in 1833.
Bibb is one of many who made a new home in Windsor and while doing so, made journalism history. It’s a story that’s being brought back to light by the
advent of computer technology.
Bibb was born in 1815 on a Kentucky plantation to an African-American slave mother, and a Caucasian father (although he never knew his father, he suspected it was James Bibb, an American Senator at the time). In 1842, he fled Kentucky for the relative safety of Michigan, a state where slavery had been abolished. But in 1850, the Fugitive Act was passed in the United States.
“This was an absolutely draconian law,” said Christina Simmons, a history professor at the University of Windsor who specializes in American history, particularly that of African-Americans. “It gave law enforcement officials all sorts of powers that they hadn’t had before. They could essentially nab people right off the street if they were suspected of being a fugitive slave.”
While fugitive slaves had already been migrating to Canada, the trickle increased to a flood after 1850, with up to 40 slaves crossing into Amherstburg a day.
Bibb joined the flood and soon settled with his second wife, Mary, in Sandwich Town. It’s there he created Voice of the Fugitive, a bi-weekly paper distributed amongst fugitive slaves and abolitionists across Canada and the United States. In creating it, Bibb became the first African-American newspaper editor in North America.The digital age has allowed us to preserve our forgotten histories. For a long time, Voice of the Fugitive was strictly available on microfilm and Bibb’s autobiography was squirrelled away in the dense shelves of academic libraries. For Bob Huggins, a digital entrepreneur and documentary filmmaker, finding the paper was an exciting discovery.
Huggins is the co-founder of Paperofrecord.com, an online repository of digitized newspapers dating back to the 18th century. The website was purchased by Google in 2008, but the papers that Huggins found– including Voice of the Fugitive – still exist on the site that is open to students and academics.
“We started the project in 2001 with the major Canadian dailies– the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, etc.,” Huggins said.
As word spread about his efforts throughout Canada, Huggins was able to obtain widowed microfilm of several papers native to Windsor-Essex, amongst them Voice of the Fugitive. He understood it’s importance immediately. “The paper was a beacon for fugitive slaves coming to Canada.”
To read Voice of the Fugitive is to open the door to Windsor as it existed in the 19th century. The paper was more than just a beacon for fugitive slaves; it recounted the changing landscape and population of Windsor-Essex. Reports of a new meat market in Sandwich Town selling “nice beef as fat, mutton, veal and pork,” ran along side poems, speeches by pastors and American senators and news items from other fugitive slaves.
Advertisements for employment show how desperate the situation was for African-Canadians in the 1850s. So few jobs were available in the Windsor area that Bibb encouraged men to head for London, Ont., where farm jobs were available for $10 a month– amounting to roughly $250 today. Bibb still encouraged slaves to escape to Canada, however. He bemoaned the rumours that people froze to death in Canada– spread mostly by slave owners and bounty hunters– for keeping slaves too scared to run from their masters.
It was also a revolutionary time of competing politics and ideas. Just across town in Walkerville, Bibb was facing competition from another fugitive African-American who was busy making history. Mary Ann Shadd, the daughter of free born African-Americans from Delaware, had arrived in Canada in 1850. A school teacher, she believed that education should be totally integrated; an idea that, at that time, was just as controversial with abolitionists and former slaves as it was with the general populace.
“This was the source of a great ideological conflict between Bibb and Shadd,” Simmons said. Bibb was a supporter of integration, while Shadd opened her school to anyone who wished to attend. Bibb’s criticisms of her prompted Shadd to start her own newspaper in 1853, The Provincial Freeman. In doing so, Shadd became the first female editor-in-chief of a newspaper in North America.
Bibb died in 1854. Shadd would end up moving the Provincial Freeman to Chatham, Ont., and later still to Toronto. Their stories are ones that have been of interest to historians for a long time. For the rest of us, these are stories of trailblazing Canadians that were locked away until they were made available for free on the Internet.
Simmons, who witnessed the American Civil Rights Movement in the 60s in her youth, was drawn to African-American history. When she began teaching in Windsor, her students wanted to learn about Canada’s role during the Civil War, leading to her discovery of Bibb and Shadd. “I teach about Canada and emancipation,” she said. “These stories and lives are inspiring.”