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Our Own Two Hands

Our Own Two Hands

A History of Black Lives in Windsor
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Excerpt from The Long Road Continues

In the early 18th century, when the planked walls of Fort du Pontchartrain du Detroit stood formidably along the strait, facing the French farms and Indigenous settlements that dotted the southern shore, people of African descent were here. This is their story.

From the earliest European settlement in the Detroit River region, Black men and women—stolen from their homes in Africa, the Caribbean, or Latin America—lived and worked in bondage alongside their masters. According to historian Afua Cooper, the keeping of slaves was a commonplace part of French settlement. In 1701, when Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac staked his claim on the north shore, he brought with him “several dozen slaves, both Panis [Indigenous] and Africans, from Montreal to build the fort.” Fort Detroit itself was a product of the fur trade, fuelled by the fashions of French noblemen across the sea. The coureur de bois who roamed the forests of Michigan, Ohio, and Upper Canada, also kept Black slaves, albeit few in number, who worked the trade with their owners.

By the late 1740s, a small French agricultural settlement had sprouted opposite Fort Detroit, alongside a Jesuit mission that was proselytizing the neighbouring Huron village. Many of these habitants, who carved out ribbon farms fronting the water, owned slaves of African descent. In New France, slavery was governed by Code Noir, a set of rules intended to validate the practice by placing it under the moral authority of state Catholicism. “Excessive” brutality against their human property was forbidden, and both “natural” marriages and informal unions between slaves were recognized by the church. Devout slaveholders often had their slaves baptized. According to historian Tiya Miles, while there was not uniform enforcement of Code Noir, slaves were afforded a “small measure” of legal protection and avenue for social inclusion through the church under the French system.

Along the Detroit River in particular, Windsor-Essex historian E.J. Lajeunesse claimed that slavery was fairly common during the French colonial era, most often employed as “house servants or drudges in the fur trade.” 33 slaves are enumerated in the 1750 Detroit census. By 1773, slaves on the south shore were also included in the count: 74 in Fort Detroit, 9 across the river. Nearly ten years later, there are some 35 slaves held on the Canadian side. While whether these were Black or Indigenous slaves is not specified, Miles, however, reveals that Indigenous slaves outnumbered Blacks nearly twice over in the Great Lakes region, perhaps due to the racialized fear of transporting Black slaves only to lose them to the shocks of a new, colder climate. Somewhat paradoxically, slaves of African descent were also costlier than Indigenous slaves, as they were considered to be hardier, less susceptible to disease, and less capable of escape and survival outside of their slave owners’ communities. Escaping was difficult for enslaved people of African descent: unlike Indigenous or Panis slaves, “they didn’t know the land, they weren’t allowed to see maps or discus routes, and any dark-skinned person traveling without an owner was suspected of being a runaway.” As such, most enslaved people of African descent lived and laboured in relative isolation—part of their captors’ households, but frequently having few or no other Black men or women residing with or near them.

There are few recorded details about what the lives and experiences of these early Black slaves would have been. Research on the nature of slavery in the north can offer just clues. Perhaps due to their relatively small numbers, their high economic value, and the nature of French settler life, slaves often lived in the same house as their owners, eating the same food. As mentioned, many were baptized—and received owners or their relatives as godparents, or even, the name of their owners’ family. Afua Cooper puts it this way: “The paternalistic nature of slavery…had as much to do with the scarcity of labour in a growing colony. […] Yet, the economy, largely based on the fur trade, did not demand large gangs of labourer” as a plantation-based agricultural system would.”

After the surrender of Canada to the British in 1760, slavery of Africans and Indigenous peoples continued unabated. The relief that slavery would be maintained under British rule is palatable in a letter by Pierre François Rigault, Marquis de Vaudreuil and Governor of Canada, dated September 9, 1760. He informed the French Commandant at Detroit, François Marie Picoté, that he had been forced to capitulate with General Amherst’s army the previous day, as the exhausted and under-resourced French troops had been surrounded by three British armies. Rigault provided assurances that advantageous terms had been negotiated on behalf of the French colonists who would remain in the region, including guarantees of property rights, religious freedom, trading privileges, and this: “They keep their Negro or Panis slaves but are obliged to give back those taken from the English.”

It is commonly held that slavery was abolished in Upper Canada with Lieutenant Governor Sir John Graves Simcoe’s 1793 Act against Slavery. However, the full title of this legislation is actually: “An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province.” It merely banned further important of slaves into Upper Canada. Existing slaves were held in bondage until the time of their death or manumission. Children born into slavery as of 1793 would be freed by age twenty-five. Slavery was not totally abolished in British North America until the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect on August 1, 1834. Until then, enslaved men and women—both Black and Indigenous—were the unseen colonial labour force that helped build the twin communities that would one day grow into the cities of Windsor and Detroit.

Revisiting our Founding Fathers

In modern-day Windsor, our streets and historic buildings proudly signal our early French and English heritage. Askin Boulevard. The Francois-Baby House. Labadie Road. Elsewhere in the world, contested memories and competing historical narratives are giving rise to difficult conversations about how those who upheld systems of slavery are memorialized in our towns and cities. Statues have come down, streets and buildings have been renamed. In the Detroit River region, public memory includes very little of slavery—save for the narrative that region was the gateway to freedom to Blacks in bondage in the deep South. This, however, is a selective memory—carefully and conveniently failing to confront the reality that Windsor’s founding fathers were not a type of moral, ahistorical anomaly. Like the settlers across the continent, they too were slave-owners.

One contributing factor to the dearth of early slave narratives today in Windsor-Essex is a consequence of the system of slavery itself. There are no first-person records remaining to tell the stories of these Black men and women, rather, all that is known of them comes from the point of view of the slave-owning class. In that perspective, these people were property and they are documented accordingly: inventories, wills and records of sale, scant mentions in captors’ letters and diaries, church records, advertisements, or criminal proceedings. What we can learn about their lives we must learn through the stories of their owners—our forefathers.

Antoine Descomptes Labadie settled on the present-day site of Hiram Walkers & Sons Ltd. distillery in 1769. Labadie’s business ventures included a farm, a grist mill, and a windmill, in addition to extensive trade with local Indigenous groups. According to a retrospective article profiling the “First Labadie” in the December 1932 edition of the Border Cities Star, Labadie fathered 33 children with three wives, leading to “thousands” of descendants across Canada and the United States. Labadie was an established slaver; he owned both African and Indigenous slaves who worked alongside him in properties in Detroit and his farm in Sandwich Township (now, Walkerville). In Labadie’s will, dated May 26, 1806, he lovingly promised his widow that she could keep her two preferred slaves. All other enslaved property would be sold, with the revenues split between family members.

Among Labadie’s contemporaries was the celebrated Baby family, known today as one of Windsor’s most illustrious founding families. The family patriarch, Jacques Baby, was a prosperous trader and Indian agent. His son, James Jacques Baby became a wealthy politician, judge, landowner, militia officer, and fur trader. Another son, François Baby, was a businessman and Legislative Assembly member who built a residence called La Ferme—today’s Baby House in downtown Windsor. It has been reported that Jacques Baby held at least thirty enslaved individuals on the Upper Canadian side of the Detroit River.

The enslaved Africans held by the Baby family included Job and Jacques-Caton. The latter married an enslaved Metis woman named Marie in 1780, at the owner’s insistence. The resulting child, Jacques, was born into slavery in the Baby household shortly thereafter. Dupéront also counted among his possessions an enslaved mulatto woman named Geneviève, and Thérèse, another mulatto woman, who was eventually given to François Baby as a gift. Her children, Léon and Rose Lontin, also belonged to the Baby family. François’ brother, James Jacques Baby, purchased Thérèse but not her children. She was emancipated in 1803, but lived and worked alongside the family until her death in 1826.

The interior lives and characteristics of most of these individuals are left entirely to our imaginations, but a short Baby family narrative exists regarding Thérèse. One of the daughters of Jacques Baby, who had lived away for some time, paid a visit to the family’s Toronto home in the 1820s. A strange Black woman ran towards her on the street, moving excitedly and calling out. The white woman thought that it was a madwoman, but the other family members laughed and reassured her that this was their old slave, Thérèse, who was merely showing great joy to see the daughter of the master after so many years. In the vignette, Thérèse is described as performing a dance accompanied by African singing. This glimpse, albeit still from the slave owners’ perspective and steeped in the language of racial stereotypes, reminds us of this woman’s humanity and generosity of spirit.

While this narrative could be used as evidence that the Babys maintained good relationships with their “property,” there is also records that the Baby family were vocal opponents against abolition. Historian Gregory Wigmore relays a story from James Parrish, a Quaker visiting Sandwich from Pennsylvania in 1793. After a conversation with François, James observed: “This man seemed as dark in his sentiments as many negro masters in the Southern States.” While slavery was not nearly as entrenched or pervasive as it was in the southern United States, it seems the ideologies underlying the system were the same.

Another founding father is John Askin. A well-known fur trader, landowner, and entrepreneur in the Great Lakes region, he crossed the Detroit River and settled his family in Sandwich in 1802. Askin, who would go on to serve as militia commandant and justice of the peace in Essex County, is today heralded as a community founder. He was also a prodigious slaver, owning a number of Indigenous and Black slaves on both sides of the river. According to records, there were two enslaved men of African descent, named Jupiter and Pompey, who had been purchased by Askin in New York in 1775 and brought with him to this area. Askin came to hold multiple other people of African descent in captivity in Sandwich, including a man named Ben and another named Emmanuel who lived to the ripe old age of 55. Askin sold an additional slave, Sam, to Alexander McKee, deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs in Upper Canada, justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and lieutenant-colonel of the local militia. Two of Askin’s slaves, Joseph, who was Black, and a Panis woman named Suzanne, had a daughter, also named Suzanne and born into slavery in the Askin household.

One individual who was counted among Askin’s possessions was an enslaved man of African descent named Joseph Cutten, also known as Josiah Cutan. After a trial held in L’Assomption (subsequently Sandwich) in September 1792, William Dummer Powell (the Western District justice who was also a slave-owner) sentenced Cutten to death for stealing rum and furs from the wealthy trader Joseph Campeau. At the sentencing, the slave-owning judge dramatically compared Cutten to “the wild beasts of the night, who… go prowling about at night for their prey.” Cutten was executed on the gallows at Sandwich and is believed to have been the first person to be executed by hanging anywhere in Upper Canada.

Loyalists Matthew Elliott, Alexander McKee and Simon Girty all fled from Pennsylvania to Detroit in 1778, and each of them owned slaves. Matthew Elliott went from Detroit to Malden (Amherstburg,) never formally establishing a residence in what is now Windsor, but at his estate in Malden he owned as many as sixty human beings: some of those individuals were property he had seized during his American Revolutionary War raids. In 1802 or 1803, Elliott sold an unnamed Black woman, described only as “a Cursed negroe wench,” to Alexander Duff, whom present-day Windsorites remember as the original builder of the Duff-Baby Mansion in Sandwich. On more than one occasion, she had been punished for theft. We know nothing more about her beyond these glimpses of rage, reported solely from the enslaver’s point of view; one can only imagine this woman’s experiences.

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