A Story To Mark Black History Month
Black History Month brings us an opportunity to explore both our personal experiences and our community experiences with racism. We know racism and prejudice continue to exist. We must continuously make the effort to recognize and reject it, and to forge new pathways that benefit us all.
The Vankleek Hill Museum contains local artefacts that are racist in their content. The Museum identified them as racist on their arrival, and knowing this accepted them into the collection.
Why? Because these items represent opportunities for discussion and learning. They are a chance to explore and consider prejudices that influenced our community in its earlier years. Talking openly about racism, or prejudice becomes a tool to identify the different forms of it that we live today.
The Museum holds in its collection, for example, a Dingman’s Electric Soap advertising pamphlet that was made available to customers in the ‘McCuaig, Cheney General Store’ which today houses the Vankleek Hill Museum. In addition, the collection includes white tea towels embroidered with exaggerated images of Black musicians and dancers in absurd stances meant to be amusing.
Dingman’s Electric Soap advertising pamphlet, c.1890. Developed by Archibald Dingman at his Toronto soap factory. It is a laundry detergent in bar form. This promotional material was used in the McCuaig, Cheney General Store which today houses the Vankleek Hill Museum. Dingman’s used images of Black children in their advertising and trading cards, to absurdly demonstrate the effectiveness of their soap’s cleaning properties. The racist implication is that once the dirty Black colour is washed off, the child becomes civilized.
(Collection Daisy and Ken Brock)
The Dingman’s Electric Soap pamphlet directly implies that Black children can never be washed as clean as White children. Therefore, Black children, indeed Black people, are unworthy and no one should expect very much from them.
Advertisers often used children in these racist types of promotional materials. It is a socializing strategy: how could images of such sweet children mean any harm. But of course, they do harm.
Take note of this: Dingman’s Electric Soap was used as laundry detergent. It was not meant for washing skin. Yet, in the ad it is demonstrated just how effective this laundry soap is when faced with the toughest ‘black’ dirt possible.
In Vankleek Hill, the racist Dingman’s Electric Soap advertising was used at the McCuaig, Cheney store during a time when the local paper, The Eastern Ontario Review, carried racist content that used the “N” word from 1894 to 1921, with no complaint evident in letters to the editor, nor comments by the editor. The use of the word had been normalized.
During those years, small newspapers purchased folios of 2- to 4-pages of weekly content, ready for print, to provide readers with entertaining fiction and international news. The “N” word is embedded in this purchased content. The fiction depicts Black people in derogatory terms as comical, illiterate, impaired and as entertainment for White readers who could easily see themselves as far more sophisticated. Much the same as the purpose of the tea towel graphics – Black people as ridiculed stereotypes, barely a step-up from slavery.
In 1915, the world was hoodwinked into paying top dollar to see the landmark 3-hour film “Birth of a Nation” about the Civil War by director D.W Griffith with movie star Lillian Gish. People who experienced the Civil War were still living. Under cover of glorifying President Lincoln, the film overtly degraded Black citizens with racist content and presented the Klu Klux Klan as a heroic force to preserve white supremacy.
Three years later, at a single showing in Vankleek Hill, the technically innovative film played to a packed audience on March 13, 1918. There was also a matinee open to children who took in hours of experiencing the “N” word and viewing racist violence. Did the film shape local attitudes?
A word search in The Eastern Ontario Review for the “N” word finds it intermittently used in the purchased pages of fiction and international news from 1894 to 1915. In 1916, it appears in seven issues of the newspaper, then fewer times in 1917 and 1918, until disappearing in 1921.
Coming attraction notice for “Birth Of A Nation” in the March 8, 1918 edition of the Eastern Ontario Review (left).
The movie review of “Birth Of A Nation” in the March 15, 1918 edition of The Eastern Ontario Review (left).
In the September 9, 1921 issue of The Eastern Ontario Review, we find the first and only use of the “N” word by a local reporter, and it is on the front page. The “N” word appears in a report of the success of the 1921 Vankleek Hill Fall Fair, including a popular target game:
“The directors and officers [of the Vankleek Hill Fair] realizing that some “pep” was needed to put forth every effort to live up to advance notices, and outside of a few disappointments, everything advertised was there. The merry-go-round, the ocean wave, hit the “N…..” and the midway made things merry and added a much needed spree to the show of the agricultural products.”
Today, it takes our breath away that there was ever such a game. There was, and it was rampant in the U.S. and Canada.
Did the page one report of this unconscionable and racist ‘game’ at the Fair spark some revulsion in our community? Was there some recognition that it was wrong? There is no evidence of complaint in subsequent issues. Knowing our community, we want to believe it did raise ire and criticism.
What can be said is that the September 9, 1921 issue of the Eastern Ontario Review appears to be the last issue that carried the “N” word.
The intent of racism is to objectify and dehumanize a race. To make “those people” appear both lesser and less deserving; and, in turn “we” become both more deserving and entitled to hold the power.
We celebrate Black History Month to recognize and appreciate the many contributions made, and being made, to the honourable advancement of Canada by our Black citizens.