Thursday, May 19, 2011


Muriel Collins was born in Georgetown, (the capital city) Guyana on May 19, 1933 and has nine siblings. Collins arrived in Toronto, at Pearson International Airport on May 16 1963, from Guyana accompanied by her two small children. She now has four children after her twin boys were born in Canada. As a sole support parent she successfully raised her daughter and three sons while working as a city employee. She worked in several Homes for the Aged (including Fudger House and Kipling Acres) for more than 33 years before retiring in September 1998. She was an active member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 79 which represents inside workers in the City of Toronto. She was a founding member of the Rainbow Committee (which represented racialized workers) now the Racialized Workers Committee, at CUPE National.

In 1989 Collins was honoured with a YWCA Women of Distinction Award for her activism and advocacy in the labour movement. She also chaired CUPE’s National Task Force on Women and was a member of CUPE’s National Executive Board (NEB) representing southern Ontario. As a member of the CUPE Ontario Executive Board, Collins spent many years working on equity issues and contributed profoundly to improving the working lives of CUPE members and all working people.

She spoke at Queens Park before the Standing Committee on Resources Development - on September 01, 1992 making a presentation on behalf of 410,000 workers from coast to coast in the public sector, including approximately 220,000 women in public services.

Ms Muriel Collins, a worker from the Homes for the Aged, a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 79, which represents inside workers in the city of Toronto:
As a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees for the past 25 years, there's much that I have witnessed and many horror stories I could recount about the struggles working Canadian men and women face on a daily basis.
For the purpose of today's presentation, though, I'm going to concentrate on just one incident back in 1983. I was involved with CUPE Local 79 in what was to be a long and bitter fight to organize the part-time workers in Metropolitan Toronto's seven municipally run homes for the aged.
You may be wondering, "How many part-time workers could there be working in these homes? A hundred, a couple of hundred?" Would you believe it was close to 900? It may also be hard to believe that it was less than 10 short years ago that this very local became the first unionized group of part-time workers in the country.
We were faced with a situation in the homes where we basically had two classes of workers: The unionized full-time workers who enjoyed decent wages, benefits and job security, and non-unionized workers who enjoyed none of the above.
What this meant in the workplace for the residents of the homes was a dramatically high turnover of what were then called casual staff, many of them racial minorities and immigrant women who were being forced to live from day to day never knowing if they still had a job next week. For many of them, the uncertainty was too much and they moved on.
When we finally decided to organize these workers, we could not meet or talk to them anywhere near the workplace. We were forced to meet them in restaurants, at bus stops and so on. Many of the workers had been threatened with termination if they were seen talking with a union organizer such as myself. But we persevered and we were successful in getting the percentage of union cards signed. That turned out to be the easy part.
What followed was a full year spent at the bargaining table trying to negotiate a first contract, with the employer using all the stalling tactics in the book. Then we spent another two years going to an arbitration board. Two years these workers waited for their first contract after exercising their democratic right to form a union.
What has it meant for these part-time workers in homes for the aged? They have now moved a lot closer to having full equality with their full-time counterparts. They're by no means all the way there, but they're closer and they now have a level of job security which they had only dreamed of. More than anything, though, this unionization has stabilized the workforce in the homes, which now number 10 across Metropolitan Toronto. It has radically reduced the staff turnover rates, so the workers have benefited, but the residents have benefited in a big way and the employer has also benefited.
Looking back to 1983 and that organizing drive, I believe I can speak for those workers when I say all the headaches, all the intimidation and disruptions in their lives were worth it, because we were able to improve the quality of life for 900 working women and men. I thank you.

Collins was also part of a team from CUPE Local 79 making a presentation at Queens Park in opposition to the Ontario Provincial Tory government’s Bill 49 to the Standing Committee on Resources Development on September 10, 1996.
"Whereas Bill 49, the Employment Standards Improvement Act, introduced by the provincial Tory government, will make it more difficult for Ontario workers to get their minimum employment rights enforced by making it more difficult for workers to be able to make claims for moneys owed to them by bad bosses;
Collins was named to the Ontario Federation of Labour’s (OFL) 1999 Honour Roll and an OFL scholarship was awarded in her name. The scholarships are awarded each year to children of unionists who are starting their first year of college or university.

This is information from the CUPE National website:

Collins named to Honour Roll

Aug 31, 1999 08:00 PM
Muriel Collins – a former member of the National Executive Board and longtime activist and member of the executive of CUPE 79 – has one more accomplishment to enjoy in her retirement. She’s been named to the Ontario Federation of Labour’s 1999 Honour Roll.
As well, an OFL scholarship will be awarded in her name. The scholarships are handed out each year to children of unionists who are starting their first year of college or university.
Local 79 president Anne Dubas says, “Sister Collins may have retired in 1998, but after 33 years of public service and labour activism she continues to receive recognition and is very deserving of this distinction.”
Livingstone Holder, a member of the CUPE Ontario Executive Board who spent many years working with Collins on equity issues, organizing and more says, “this is a sister who understood the struggle instinctively. In her own quiet but determined way, she was able to contribute profoundly to the working lives of CUPE members and all working people.”
The OFL Honour Roll can be added to Collins’ long list of achievements including the naming of the Muriel Collins Housing Co-operative in honour of her years of dedication and service to the community, CUPE regional vice president, co-chair of the CUPE Ontario Women’s Committee and a YWCA Woman of Distinction award.
As for Sister Collins, she says she’s thoroughly enjoying her retirement, spending quality time with her grandchildren and tending to her garden.

In May 1995 the Muriel Collins Housing Co-op named in her honour was officially opened and will be celebrating 16 years of existence this year, 2011. The housing co-op was named for Collins in recognition of her fight against racism and oppression. This amazing African Guyanese woman is one of our many unsung sheroes. I have only seen her name mentioned in one sentence in one book. There will be a celebration of Muriel Collins’ life and achievements on Monday, May 23 at the Muriel Collins Housing Co-op. The plan is to include singing of Guyanese folk songs, Kwe-kwe songs and Guyanese National songs. We shall have a fine time, fine time that night!


El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He would have been 86 years old on Thursday May, 19, 2011 but he was assassinated on February 21, 1965 three months before his 40th birthday. His parents Earl Little and Louise Norton Little met in Montreal at a United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) convention. The UNIA was the Pan-African organization founded by the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. El-Shabazz who at various times carried the names Malik Shabazz, Malcolm X and Omowale is an iconic human rights activist whose various name changes was a bid to rid himself of the “slave name” Little. Recognizing that the name he was given at birth was forced on his ancestors by the white people who at some point had owned his ancestors he choose African (Omowale) and Arab (Malik) names to distance himself from the European name he was given at birth. Omowale is a Yoruba name meaning “the child has come home” and Shabazz was given this name when he visited Nigeria. Jack Rummel and Heather Lehr Wagner write in their 2005 published book Malcolm X Militant Black Leader: “In Nigeria, students flocked to mass assemblies to hear the famed American activist speak, and they bestowed still another name on him: Alhadji Omowale Malcolm X.” Very fittingly, Malik is the Arabic word for king. For some African Americans Shabazz was as venerated as any member of royalty. The late African American actor Ossie Davis (December 18, 1917 – February 4, 2005) who gave the eulogy at the funeral on February 27, 1965, referred to El-Shabazz as “a Prince, our own black, shining Prince.”

Some of the horrific experiences of his family and his early life shaped the person that El-Shabazz eventually became. In the 1965 published The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Shabazz shared several of those experiences including one told to him by his mother.
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan raiders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because "The good Christian white people" were not going to stand for my father's "spreading trouble" among the "good" Negroes of Omaha with the "back to Africa" preachings of Marcus Garvey.

In Malcolm X, The Man and His Times, published in 1990 Dr. John Henrik Clarke, African American scholar and historian states: The racist society that produced and killed Malcolm X is responsible for what he was and for destroying what he could have been. He had the greatest leadership potential of any person to emerge directly from the black proletariat in this century. In another time under different circumstances he might have been a king-and a good one. He might have made a nation and he might have destroyed one. He was a creation of the interplay of powerful and conflicting forces in mid-century America. No other country or combination of forces could have shaped him the way he was and ultimately destroyed him with such unique ruthlessness.

In 1929 when Shabazz was 4 years old a white supremacist group burnt the family’s home leaving the Littles with several small children, homeless. Two years later in 1931 when he was 6, his father suffered a particularly gruesome, racially motivated death. Louise Little, traumatized by the horrific murder of her husband, cheated of the insurance money she should have received at his death and unable to find work to support her children was further victimized when the government imprisoned her in a mental institution, seized and scattered her children into various foster homes. El-Shabazz spoke about his time spent in white foster homes where he was treated as if he was a pet. “What I am trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position. But it has historically been the case with white people, in their regard for black people, that even though we might be with them, we weren’t considered of them. Even though they appeared to have opened the door, it was still closed. Thus they never did really see me.”

Given the history of his family’s involvement with the UNIA and the influence of the philosophy of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, it is hardly surprising that El-Shabazz eventually became the iconic human rights activist whose words are quoted by all and sundry even today in the 21st century. The phrase “by any means neccessary” has been used and misused by individuals and groups whose actions and philosophies are in opposition to all that El-Shabazz represents. He continues to be an inspiration for oppressed people internationally, his name invoked in their struggle. It is also not surprising that he was under constant surveillance by the American government ageny the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) which sought to destroy any and all African American individuals or groups working to address the unequal and oppressed position to which African Americans have been relegated since they were first taken to what is now the USA. In the preface to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, M. S. Handler commented: "No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price-a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man in American society rather than integrating the black man into that society."

During this year of the International Year for People of African Descent as we remember those who have gone before us, our ancestors on whose shoulders we stand, on whose backs we crossed over it is also important to educate ourselves as much as possible about who these people really were. Reading several books about our ancestors (more than 40 books have been written about El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and thinking critically about the biases of the authors or commentators is an excellent start. In his 1994 published Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary Walter Dean Myers reminds us: People do not just “happen” in history. They come along at a certain time, and in a certain place. They react to ideas that have come before them, and to people who have expressed those ideas. The man we know as Malcolm X was no exception.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


One of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston on Monday night last. Nine colored men, comprising the pilot, engineers and crew of the rebel gunboat Planter, took the vessel under their exclusive control, passed the batteries and forts in Charleston harbor, hoisted a white flag, ran out to the blockading squadron, and thence to Port Royal, via St. Helena Sound and Broad river, reaching the flagship Wabash shortly after ten o’clock last evening.

Excerpt from an article published in The New York Herald on May 18, 1862.

Very early in the morning (approximately 3:00 a.m) on May 13, 1862 an enslaved African man outwitted the Confederates and piloted one of their warships into the possession of the Union Navy. The 23 year old Robert Smalls executed this heroic feat at the height of the American Civil War and contributed to the eventual victory of the Union side of the conflict. Reports in some Northern newspapers referred to Smalls’ delivering of the Planter to the Union Navy as “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” The article published in The New York Herald on May 18, 1862 included this information about “the first trophy from Fort Sumter”
The Planter is a high-pressure, side-wheel steamer, one hundred and forty feet in length, and about fifty feet beam, and draws about five feet of water. She was built in Charleston, was formerly used as a cotton boat, and is capable of carrying about 1,400 bales. On the organization of the Confederate navy she was transformed into a gunboat, and was the most valuable war vessel the Confederates had at Charleston. Her armament consisted of one thirty-two pound rifle gun forward and a twenty-four pound howitzer aft. Besides, she had on board when she came into the harbor one seven-inch rifled gun, one eight-inch columbiad, one eight-inch howitzer, one long thirty-two pounder, and about two hundred rounds of ammunition, which had been consigned to Fort Ripley, and which would have been delivered at that fortification on Tuesday had not the designs of the rebel authorities been frustrated.
Even Harper’s Weekly published a prominent article entitled “The Steamer Planter and Her Captor,” in their June 14, 1862 edition praising the heroic deeds of Smalls and the other African Americans. The two page spread complete with an illustration of Smalls begins: “WE publish herewith an engraving of the steamer Planter, lately run out of Charleston by her negro crew, and a portrait of her captain, ROBERT SMALLS-both from photographs sent us by our correspondent at Hilton Head.”

Although several books have been written about the exploits of Robert Smalls (including a children’s book by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) he remains a little known figure outside of South Carolina. Smalls’ heroic actions on May 13, 1862 are not as well known as lesser actions by white Civil War “heroes” because contrary to popular opinion the Civil War was not fought to end slavery in the USA. Northern white politicians, fighting men and women of the Union did not care if slavery continued into perpetuity because they did not consider Africans their equal. Some white people may have thought that it was wrong to hold people in slavery, exploiting their labour without pay, buying and selling them but even those abolitionists did not think that Africans were their equal. None of them would have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to end slavery. The Southerners or members of the Confederacy would have been willing to risk their lives to preserve slavery from which they benifitted enormously. Their very existence depended on holding Africans in slavery.

After 11 Southern states declared their secession from the United States federal government and formed the Confederate States of America "the Confederacy" war was inevitable. The U.S. federal government was supported by twenty mostly-Northern states and by five slave states that became known as the border states. These 25 states made up the opposing Union. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked a U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. President Lincoln responded by calling for a volunteer army from each state to recapture federal property. This led to declarations of secession by 4 other states. The Union seized control of the border states early in the war and established a naval blockade that virtually ended the sale of cotton on which the South depended for much of its wealth. The Union Navy also blocked most imports into the Southern states. The American Civil War (1861-1865) was fought to prevent the South from seceding from the Union. The people whose sole focus was the end of slavery were the millions of enslaved Africans, like Smalls, who laboured without pay to enrich white people in the USA.

Smalls was born on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina to Lydia, an enslaved African woman. Smalls and his mother were both “house slaves” yet he seized this opportunity to flee slavery. Okun Edet Uya details Smalls’ life in his 1971 published book From Slavery to Public Service Robert Smalls 1839-1915 including this information: Lydia was born a slave on the Ashdale Plantation located on Ladies Island, about a half hour’s row across from Beaufort and five hour’s row across the river from Hilton Head at the entrance to Port Royal on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Lydia’s son Robert was born on April 5, 1839, in the McKee slave quarters on Prince Street. Following the end of the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period when for a short period the federal government made an attempt to include rights for African Americans, Smalls was elected to office first as State Representative in South Carolina and eventually as a member of the U.S House of Representatives. He was a state representative from 1868-1870 and state senator from 1870-1874. In 1874 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In his 1995 published book Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915 Edward A. Miller, Jr. writes: Smalls’s career in the legislature that began in 1868 spanned seven of the nine years of the reconstruction period. Ex-slaves made up 56 percent of the legislature.

In his 2009 published book Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families Andrew Billingsley describes Smalls’ absence from the history books. The South Carolina history books I grew up with contained no mention, not even foot notes, of Robert Smalls and his extraordinary contributions to our state’s history. South Carolina has done little to honor or remember this significant figure. Outside his native Beaufort County, I know of no towns or streets named in his honor. Yet Robert Smalls should rank among the most honored and recognized South Carolinians, but he does not simply because of the color of his skin.

In Canada we face a similar lack of recognition of African Canadians who have contributed to this country in various ways. There are no streets, buildings or schools in Toronto named for Lucie and Thornton Blackburn who established Toronto’s first taxi cab in 1836. Lucie Blackburn lived on Bleecker Street from 1890 to 1895 after her husband transitioned in 1890 yet there was great resistance from the Municipal government to naming what they eventually named the St Jamestown Library and the Wellesley Community Centre in honour of this African Canadian couple who made significant contributions to Toronto. Neither St James nor Lord Wellesley ever lived in Toronto. During this year designated by the United Nations as the International Year for People of African Descent we need to address this lack of representation and continue the education even after December 31, 2011.


On May 5, 1905, a 37 year old African American man, Robert S. Abbott founded what would within a few years become known as the “The World’s Greatest Weekly.” The Chicago Defender began as a two-cent weekly published from the kitchen of Abbott’s landlady and eventually became the foremost African-American publication of its time. The African American entrepreneur started his venture with an investment of thirteen dollars and seventy five cents. In his 1955 published biography of Abbott, (The Lonely Warrior, The life and times of Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender Newspaper) Roi Ottley informs us that: The first weekly issue of the Chicago Defender appeared on the streets May 5, 1905, an appropriately balmy day spring day on which the thermometer reached 68° Fahrenheit. The initial printing was three hundred copies and cost $13.75.

Abbot was born on Nov. 24, 1868 on St. Simon's Island, Georgia to formerly enslaved Africans. Information confirming the date of Abbot’s birth comes from The Lonely Warrior, The life and times of Robert S. Abbott, founder of the Chicago Defender Newspaper: “He who was destined to become the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender gave his first wail in his father’s absence, Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1868.” Ottley adds that “Robert S. Abbott believed he was born November 28, 1870, but the parish register (1868-1870) of St. Stephens Episcopal Church (now St. Matthews), Savannah, where he was baptized, records his birth as the above date.” Abbott attended Hampton Institute in Virginia and Chicago's Kent College of Law, from which he graduated in 1899. Finding it difficult to practice law because of racial discrimination, Abbott chose instead to publish a newspaper. For five years, he was the editor, salesperson and circulation director. Abbott hired his first employee in 1910. As the paper grew, regular contributors included scholar W.E.B. Dubois, writer Langston Hughes and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. By 1920, the paper's circulation exceeded 200,000 and was widely read in the North and the South.

The Chicago Defender gave voice to an African American point of view at a time when white newspapers and other media would not. During World War I the newspaper advocated equal rights for African Americans in the U.S. military, a position so radical it led to an investigation of Abbott for unfounded allegations of sedition. Abbott frequently wrote about the Jim Crow laws designed to segregate African Americans and opposed the formation of a segregated Colored Officers Training Camp in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in 1917. The newspaper frequently reported on police brutality against African Americans and the struggles of African American workers. The Chicago Defender also regularly reported on the numerous incidents of white mobs lynching African American men, women and children and the paper received national attention in 1915 for its anti-lynching slogan, "If you must die, take at least one with you."

The Chicago Defender was unique in its time for several reasons including the fact that the word Negro was never used to describe African Americans; instead they were The Race and members of The Race were Race men and Race women. Even though the newspaper was based in Chicago it was widely read in the southern states where it was distributed by African Americans employed as porters and waiters on the railroad. The newspaper was also distributed by African American athletes and entertainers and had to be smuggled into the south because groups such as the Klu Klux Klan tried to confiscate copies or threatened its readers. The Chicago Defender was passed from person to person and read aloud in barbershops and churches. It is estimated that at its height each paper sold was read by at least five African Americans, putting its readership at over 500,000 people each week. The Chicago Defender was the first African American newspaper to have a circulation over 100,000 and the first to have a health column.

The Great Migration of African Americans from the dangerous Southern US with its Jim Crow laws to Northern states like Chicago was encouraged by information in the Chicago Defender. During World War 1 (1914-1918) articles and editorials in the newspaper provided information for those African Americans living in the south willing to migrate. Determined to encourage African Americans to escape segregation, labour exploitation and white violence Abbott published not only articles and editorials but also cartoons, train schedules and job listings to convince Southern readers of the Chicago Defender to migrate. The Great Northern Migration, as it was called in the Chicago Defender, resulted in millions of African Americans migrating with a significant number going to Chicago, which incidentally was founded by an African man who was born in Haiti. Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable is recognized as the founder of Chicago by the city government of Chicago and the state of Illinois. He was also recognized with a US postal stamp issued on February 20, 1987. This information about DuSable was published in the March 18, 1996 edition of the Chicago based African American Jet Magazine: "Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was born in San Marc, Haiti, in 1745. His mother, an enslaved African woman, was killed when he was about ten years old. His father, who was his mother's 'owner', sent Du Sable to be educated in France, then later employed him as a seaman. Du Sable was 20 years old when he was shipwrecked near New Orleans and had to go into hiding for fear of being enslaved on U.S. soil. He eventually made his way to the area now known as Chicago and was the first African settler as well as the first 'non-native' settler in that area."

In spite of Chicago being touted as a better alternative to living in southern states for African Americans, they were not welcome by white Chicagoans. Matters came to a head on July 26, 1919 when the city erupted in what has been described as a “race riot” after Eugene Williams, an African American teenager who was swimming in the designated “white” 29th Street beach area was murdered by a white man. When a white police officer refused to arrest the accused and even prevented an African American police officer from effecting the arrest things got ugly. Even in defacto “desegregated” Chicago, it was accepted practice for African Americans to swim in the waters of Lake Michigan off 25th Street beach and white Americans to swim in the waters of Lake Michigan off 29th Street beach and “never the twain shall meet.”

Rumours spread in the white community erroneously identified the victim of the July 26, 1919 murder as white and the perpetrator as African American but things had been simmering for a while. According to William M. Tuttle Jr. who wrote in his 1996 published book Race riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919:
“Not long after Eugene Williams’ body had been raised to the surface of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s “athletic clubs” had mobilized for action. These gangs, composed of white teenagers and young men in their twenties, many of the roughest of whom were of Irish descent, had terrorized black people for years. For weeks, in the spring and summer of 1919, they had been anticipating, even eagerly awaiting a race riot. On several occasions, they themselves had endeavored to precipitate one, and now that racial violence threatened to become generalized and unrestrained throughout Chicago, they were set to exploit the chaos.”
When the dust settled after the four day (July 27-30) conflict it was reported that 23 African Americans had been killed, 537 wounded and 1,000 families left homeless. The Chicago Defender ceased its encouragement of African American migration to Chicago.

Unfortunately, nowhere in the USA was really safe for African Americans; Chicago was only one of several areas where they were subjected to racial violence. In his 2003 published book The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, Richard Wormser asserts: The Chicago Riot was part of a racial frenzy of clashes, massacres, and lynchings throughout the North and the South. All were started by whites. In Washington, D.C., four whites and two blacks were killed. Whites were astonished that blacks were fighting back. The New York Times lamented the new black militancy: "There had been no trouble with the Negro before the war when most admitted the superiority of the white race."

No doubt leaders like Robert S. Abbott and his publication the Chicago Defender encouraged and contributed to the new assertive and “fighting back” spirit of African Americans many of who had returned from fighting in the European tribal conflict from 1914 to 1918. In the 21st century there remains a need for “ethnic press” to give voice to those voices not heard/represented in the white media.

Monday, May 2, 2011


African American pioneer, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, was the first known settler to build a house and open a trading post in what is now known as Chicago. Du Sable was a most intriguing man. Born in Haiti, he was educated in Paris and later worked as a seaman for his father.
Fearful of being enslaved after being shipwrecked in New Orleans, he traveled north and settled in Eschikagou. There he married a Potawatami Indian and raised two children. During that time he became well known as a fur trapper. He also expanded his home and land into a major settlement that included a dairy, bake house, smokehouse, poultry house, workshop, stable, barn and mill.

The site of Du Sable's home is marked by a plaque on the northeast approach to the Michigan Avenue Bridge. On February 20, 1987, he was honoured on the 10th stamp in the U.S. Black Heritage Series.
From the March 18, 1996 edition of Jet magazine:
"Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was born in San Marc, Haiti, in 1745. His mother, an enslaved African woman, was killed when he was about ten years old. His father, who was his mother's 'owner', sent Du Sable to be educated in France, then later employed him as a seaman. Du Sable was 20 years old when he was shipwrecked near New Orleans and had to go into hiding for fear of being enslaved on U.S. soil. He eventually made his way to the area now known as Chicago and was the first African settler as well as the first 'non-native' settler in that area."

It speaks volumes about the normalcy of a White supremacist culture that even among the indigenous people of the area Du Sable's presence was noted as: "The first White man was a Black man". In the years that the Du Sable family (his wife, Catherine, son Jean and daughter, Suzanne) lived there, they provided stability to an area that was primarily frequented by itinerant traders. People as far away as the east coast knew Du Sable as the only source of farmed produce in the area.

Du Sable's trading post was very prosperous with commercial buildings, docks, a mansion house, fruit orchards and livestock. The settlement later became a small community with a church, school and store. Settlers from Quebec came to Du Sable's post because of difficulties with the English who enforced strict rules regarding travel and free trade and heavily taxed the French Canadians. Many of them wanted to buy land from Du Sable but, instead of selling, he gave them some land.

It is somewhat of a mystery why this wealthy African-American and his Native wife in 1800 sold their prosperous holdings, including their land, to a White trader for a mere $1,200. Du Sable and his wife moved to St. Charles, Missouri and his wife died soon after they moved. When Du Sable transitioned on August 28, 1818, he had been living in poverty for almost four years. He is buried in the Borromeo Cemetery in St Charles, Missouri. Du Sable, although popularly known as "The Father of Chicago", for generations was not officially recognized until October 26, 1968 by the State of Illinois and the City of Chicago as the Founder of Chicago.

Du Sable is the first in an impressive line of African-Americans (from Ida Bell Wells-Barnett to Barack Hussein Obama) who have lived in Chicago. Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862-March 25, 1913) was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, but lived in Chicago from 1895 (following her marriage to Ferdinand L. Barnett) until 1913.

Wells-Barnett became the Rosa Parks of her generation when on September 15, 1883, the then 21-year-old Ida Bell Wells refused to obey a conductor's order that she leave the "ladies' car" which was for the exclusive use of White women, on a Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Line train.

The "coloured" car was used by men of any race because smoking, drinking alcohol and swearing was permitted and it was also the only place where African-American women travelers were permitted to sit. The conductor tore Wells' dress as he tried to remove her from the "ladies car." In spite of being an educated, well-dressed lady, she "determined not to be taken, hooked her feet under the seat in front of her, began scratching the conductor with her nails, and then bit his hands deeply enough to draw blood."
The conductor, with the help of a few passengers, pried Wells from her seat and dragged her off the train. She sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Line and, in December 1884, she won her case and was awarded damages of $500. The judge found that Wells was a person of "ladylike appearance and deportment, a school teacher and one who might be expected to object to traveling in the company of rough and boisterous men."
Wells did not enjoy her legal victory for long; the local court decision was overturned (1887) after the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway's successful appeal to the Superior Court. This incident moved Wells to begin writing about the plight of African-Americans and the daily injustices they faced. She became a journalist full time after her criticism of the racist practices of the school board led to her dismissal from teaching in 1891.
As editor and co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, Wells gained national attention when she launched an anti-lynching campaign. Three of her friends who owned a grocery store in Memphis were lynched in 1892 because the owner of the White grocery store was jealous of their success.

Wells wrote a scathing expose of the lynching and the office of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight was destroyed by a gang of White men. Wells left Memphis and, in 1892, published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, in which she wrote that lynching was "an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized." She spent the rest of her life crusading against the White supremacist culture that allowed the routine lynching of African-American men, women and children.
When Du Sable settled in Chicago in 1773 he was the sole non-native inhabitant; when he and his family left in 1800, the settlers were White. Paula Giddings, an African-American historian, writes in Ida: A Sword Among Lions (published in 2008): "The first African American community emerged in the 1840s and was made up largely of fugitive slaves (Illinois was bordered by the slave states of Kentucky and Missouri) and free Blacks from the East. An important 'stop' on the Underground Railroad, a thousand Blacks lived in the city by 1860."
Since Du Sable, notable African-American Chicagoans have included Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 - April 30, 1926), the first American to gain an international pilot's license; John Harold Johnson (January 19, 1918 - August 8, 2005), owner and publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines; Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917 - December 3, 2000), poet; Richard Wright (September 4, 1908 - November 28, 1960), author; Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901 - July 6, 1971), jazz musician; Harold Washington (April 15, 1922 - November 25, 1987), Chicago's first African-American mayor; Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson Sr.; U.S. Representative Jesse Louis Jackson Jr.; Oprah Winfrey and Barack Hussein Obama, the first African-American president.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Most countries celebrate Labour Day on the first day in May. Even in countries that do not recognize May 1 as Labour Day, there are celebrations by workers on May 1 (International Workers Day).

As a child growing up in Guyana, May Day was more than the celebration of workers; it was a day when the descendants of enslaved Africans and the descendants of indentured labourers imitated the antics of their former colonizers. Dressed in our new, special for May Day clothes, we gleefully danced around the Maypole during May Day celebrations as we plaited the colourful ribbons attached to the Maypole.

I remember that more than I remember any Labour Day parades that happened during my childhood. The crowning of the May queen was also a part of the celebration which was replicated across the country in various community centres.

Surprisingly, I can remember feeling very proud and pleased looking at the Maypole after we finished plaiting as I saw the intricate pattern we had formed on the pole with the brightly coloured ribbons. The plaiting of the Maypole and the crowning of the May queen are part of the pagan spring rites from the British Isles that became part of British Guianese culture and subsequently, Guyanese culture.

May Day, in countries where it is observed as Labour Day, usually is a public holiday to honour workers and celebrate the social and economic achievements of the labour movement. Britain is said to have the oldest trade union movement in Europe, supposedly beginning in the 17th century with the organizing of workers in skilled trades like printing. The idea apparently gained momentum in the early 18th century with more categories of skilled workers, including tailors, shoemakers, weavers and cabinetmakers. Of course, none of these workers saw the irony of them fighting for improved working conditions and wages while the enslavement of Africans was a British institution.

Similarly, in Canada, where the first trade union was founded by printers in Quebec City in 1827 White men organizing for better working conditions and wages did not see the irony of keeping a whole group of people working without pay. (Slavery was a Canadian institution until August 1, 1834.)

In the United States, where slavery was abolished on January 31, 1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Mechanics' Union Trade Association organized skilled workers in 1827. White workers were so incensed at the idea of Africans competing with them for jobs that there were several incidents of African-Americans being lynched and their homes burned.

One of the worst cases occurred over a three-day period from May 1 to May 3, 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. Eric Foner, a White American historian wrote of the Memphis Massacre in his 1988 book, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877:
"It is difficult to say which proved more threatening to local Whites - the large number of impoverished rural freedmen who thronged the streets in search of employment or the considerable group that managed to achieve modest economic success."
(Many of the African American victims were robbed of cash, watches, tools and furniture.)

The many documented sources of this period of domestic terrorism against African-Americans emphasize that the victims of these crimes could not expect any help from the White, mostly Irish, police force whose members were, in many cases, also the perpetrators.

On May 3, 1866 in the aftermath of the Memphis Massacre, it was documented that White Americans had raped and murdered many African-Americans and destroyed four churches, 12 schools and 91 homes of African-Americans.

There are fewer recorded incidents of White Canadian workers murdering African-Canadians and burning their homes. However, what they may have lacked in quantity, the Canadians made up for it in quality. Beginning on July 26, 1784, African-Canadians in Shelburne, Nova Scotia were attacked and had their homes destroyed by their White neighbours. Those who managed to escape the 10-day reign of terror by fleeing to nearby Birchtown, were still the targets of attacks from the White mob, which continued the racially motivated attacks up to one month later.

In his 1976 book, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone 1783-1870, James W. St. G. Walker writes about the plight of David George who fled to Birchtown: "Along with others of his colour, George sought refuge in Birchtown, but even here they were unsafe. While the force of the riot continued in Shelburne for at least 10 days, incursions into Birchtown were reported for up to one month".

The attacks were blamed on the inability of White men to compete with African-Canadians in the job market as employers could exploit the Africans by paying them less than the White men were willing to take as wages.

Whether in Canada or the U.S., these attacks were erroneously called race riots when White people attacked communities of Africans. These were not riots when one group was trying to eliminate another group based on skin colour and especially when government forces were involved. Competing for jobs may have been used as an excuse but these were racially motivated attacks on clearly outnumbered and vulnerable African communities. Terrorism, ethnic cleansing or genocide might be more apt descriptions of these horrific acts.

If the White people were genuinely interested in fighting for jobs, they would have recognized that who they needed to fight were those who could withhold employment or exploit their labour. The Africans in their midst were not in positions of power and were also being exploited by those who held power.

The labour movement and worker solidarity has come a long way since those days when Africans in North America were brutalized and murdered because they dared to seek waged employment.

Today, Africans in North America are members of unions alongside White co-workers. Unfortunately, however, although we pay the same union dues and should have the same access to services and leadership roles in our respective unions, this is not the case. It continues to be a struggle for Africans and other racialized people in the labour movement; hence the need for organizations such as the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) and the Latin American Trade Unionists Coalition (LATUC.)

While working in unionized workplaces may offer more security for racialized workers than in workplaces where workers are not organized, racialized workers sometimes do not have the same access to services from their unions as White workers do. Looking at the leadership of the labour movement, from the individual locals to the national bodies, it is quite obvious that we still have a long way to go for equity and equality in the labour movement.

As racialized workers, it is important to be actively involved in our unions, to work and advocate for change and not be satisfied with token, lapdog positions.


"One of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept on grinning at me, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could. He went down in a heap but when he finally got up on his feet he grinned at me again and I snapped, I really did. I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth and I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two Mickeys were standing there looking blank. I shot them both. When the sub-inspector drove up, I told him the Mickeys tried to escape. He didn't believe me but all he said was 'bury them and see the wall is cleaned up'."
From Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson published 2005 (page 300)

“Mouth open, story jump out” was an expression Guyanese used when there was the exposure of an alarming, scandalous often salacious secret. Two books published in the 21st century have exposed the brutal, barbaric, viciously systematic campaign of the British government against the African freedom fighters of Kenya during the 1950s struggle for independence. In its bid to retain control of the land it had stolen from the Africans, the British government committed atrocities reminiscent of the Nazis of WWII infamy. Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson and Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins (both published 2005) bring to light some of the atrocities committed by the British. Both books are written by white authors. Anderson, who teaches African studies at Oxford University and has been described as a “Kenya expert” in the British press, used the documented material of the British colonial government. In this case it is more than “mouth open, story jump out;” when formerly secret documents have been exposed that detail some of the sadistic practices of the British government. Not surprisingly Anderson tries to make the case that both sides (Africans and Europeans) were to blame for the slaughter of Africans during the dreadful British clamp down on the rightful owners of Kenya fighting to regain their land. While hundreds of thousands of African men, women and children were killed (many tortured) during the decade long (1951-1961) struggle, in contrast, 32 white settlers were killed.

The British were not kind even to the Africans who collaborated with them. The records show that on 24 April 1954 more than 40,000 Africans were arrested by British forces, including 5000 Imperial troops and 1000 policemen, during widespread, coordinated dawn raids. The members of the Imperial troops and the policemen worked for the British. Even though the British slaughtered their people and occupied their land these Africans collaborated with the British. This is not surprising because wherever people are oppressed, without fail, there are always those who will collaborate with the oppressor. It is human nature. Ironically in the midst of the British government’s brutal crack down on the Africans’ bid for independence, their princess (now queen) Elizabeth and her husband arrived in Kenya (February 1952) on a royal visit. In 1953 when Elizabeth was crowned queen of the British Empire her government imposed the death penalty on anyone who was identified as a member of the African resistance movement.

Caroline Elkins, history professor at Harvard University, author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya has been roundly criticized by several white professors and journalists. This criticism is not surprising because for decades white people have perpetuated the myth of colonization being an attempt to civilize racialized people. They blithely characterize the oppressed people who resisted as “savage” instead of recognizing that the white settlers were beyond barbaric and savage in their treatment of the indigenous people of whichever land they happened to covet and occupy. This brutality of indigenous people happened whether the settlers were British, French, German or any other European tribe. This brutality was a fact of life for the victims whether they were in Africa, Asia or the Americas. As long as the Europeans coveted the property or bodies of racialized people they were brutally single-minded in pursuing their goal of occupation.

Some of the quarrel with Elkins is her documentation of first hand accounts of those Africans who survived the barbarity of the British even though she has also used (extensively) records the British have kept secret for decades. In an article published (April 14, 2011) in the British newspaper The Guardian Elkins wrote: “I used archival evidence collected in Kenya and Britain, along with witness testimony that I collected from hundreds of detention survivors. A number of former detainees told me that electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire.” For decades the British maintained the myth of a civilizing mission even though Africans recognized the truth. Elkins addresses this in Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya where she writes: “In the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary – for instance, the castration of a Mau Mau suspect – the British and their loyalist supporters maintained the illusion that their actions were the epitome of civilized behavior. It was as if by insisting loudly enough, and long enough, they could somehow revise the reality of their campaign of terror, dehumanizing torture, and genocide.” All this happened after the Africans in Kenya answered the call of Empire and took active part in the second European tribal conflict (WWII 1939-1945) on the side of the British and their allies.

After decades of brutally resisting the Africans’ right to self-rule, Britain was forced to give Kenyans their independence on December 12, 1963. On Thursday, April 7, 2011 four elderly Kenyans, Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara, now in their 70s and 80s, brought their case for reparations to Britain’s High Court. Elkins (author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya) was called as an expert witness. The trial continues amidst the preparation for the royal wedding. In a dreadful feeling of déjà vu the following gushing article appeared in the Toronto Star on April 22, 2011: Where will Kate Middleton and Prince William spend their honeymoon? Royal watchers, who speculate on anything Buckingham or Windsor, have an active pool on likely destinations. Bets on Africa were hot earlier this week. There’s logic at work, too — Wills proposed to Kate in Kenya, a place he has said “will hold a special place in my heart for the rest of my life.” Déjà vu: The British heir to the throne was on a visit to Kenya during the time her government was terrorizing Africans in Kenya. Her coronation with all the pomp and splendour took place in London while this was happening. Her grandson and eventual heir is getting married while four elderly Kenyans seek reparations for the devastation the British wrought more than 50 years ago and there is speculation that the site of his honeymoon will be Kenya.

Several newspapers articles have stated that: Britain's Foreign Office has admitted that some Kenyans were tortured and killed during an anti-colonial rebellion in the 1950s, but denies the current government has any responsibility for the survivors. That is not good enough after decades of the British government keeping secret Britain’s gulag in Kenya. The British government needs to admit their responsibility for the horror visited upon the Kenyans and as one Kenyan women is quoted at the end of Elkins’ book: “Maybe then there will be some peace once our people are able to mourn in public and our children and our grandchildren will know how hard we fought and how much we lost to make Kenya free for them.”