Addressing Racism in Vankleek Hill’s History

Museums have a responsibility to research and interpret the culture of their community. That includes the presence of racism and other destructive ‘isms’ that have or do impact members of our community. At the Vankleek Hill Museum, we tell the story of the laundryman Wing Lee who worked in Vankleek Hill, and in May on this FB page we told a broader researched story of his life that included the racist treatment of Chinese immigrants. The Museum also has in its collection examples of overtly racist advertising that was used to sell soap at a time when the building was a general store. These artefacts are scheduled to be used in the refresh of the permanent exhibit planned for this summer as appears in our summer job advertising. These artefacts and stories have the power to encourage important but difficult conversations.

In light of recent events in the U.S. and here in Canada that have exposed racism living large amongst us, Russell Township has discussed the origins of its name. Council intends to denounce their namesake who was an active owner and promoter of slaves by choosing a more positive reference for the name Russell. With this in mind, we at the museum acknowledge that Vankleek Hill’s own Simon Vankleek was a slave owner as well. A search for Simon Vankleek and slaves brings us to the ‘Our Ontario’ website that provides an image of a page from an Ontario Loyalist history book. The page states clearly that while living in Poughkeepsie, New York, Simon Vankleek “owned slaves, as was the custom.” Unfortunately, the story ends there when the author casually moves on to Simon’s horse breeding. A request was sent to the Belleville Public Library for the name of the book, which they hold.

The earliest available census for Poughkeepsie, Duchess County, New York, is the 1790 Federal Census. In this census, several members of the Vankleek Family provide the number of slaves they have. Simon and Cecilia Vankleek do not appear in the 1790 New York Census because they were forced to flee the area when their farm lands and belongings were expropriated by the Patriots toward the end of the American Revolution in 1783. They would have then joined the remaining British forces to evacuate to Nova Scotia. We do not know if Simon and Cecilia brought slaves to Nova Scotia, their first stop in Canada, and we have no record of slaves in Vankleek Hill with the family in 1798. However, Black Loyalist organizations in Nova Scotia explain that about 3000 Black Loyalists arrived with the British. They explain further that the typical Loyalists brought with them anywhere from 1200 to 2000 enslaved Black People. Surviving ship records show the slaves listed as “servants,” or “indentured.”

We would like to acknowledge racism in Vankleek Hill’s history by committing to share some of the darker stories from our past. We also plan on encouraging education and discussion surrounding racism through our new permanent exhibit that will include Indigenous perspectives for the first time. We welcome challenging stories and as a community, we have them.

In June, Vankleek Hill hosted a “We Are One” protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The event came about after four students from the area wanted to show their support for their movement without having to travel into the city. Photo by Reid Masson, taken from The Review:

In June, Vankleek Hill held its own protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman. This was a great step in the right direction. However, being removed from the height of the protests by a couple months now, it is important that we all reflect on how we can continue to support the fight against White Supremacy. This can be done by donating to organizations such as Black Lives Matter, supporting Black owned businesses, self-educating, and raising awareness in your community, among other things.

Further Reading:

If you would like to learn more about the history of Black slaves in the Maritimes, we would recommend reading North to Bondage by Harvey Amani Whitfield. It is more of an academic read but illuminates the important and often overlooked contribution that Black people made in the development of the Maritimes. It also dispels the pervasive myth that Black people fleeing the United States found a safe haven here in Canada.

Another enlightening read in Black Loyalist history is The Book of Negroes by celebrated Canadian author Lawrence Hill. It is a gripping historical fiction about a young girl who is captured and forced into slavery. It has also been made into a tv series, now available for free on CBC Gem.

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