Pastor Wendell Gibbs speaks to a full house at Toronto's First Baptist Church during its annual Black History Month celebration. The congregation sings songs like We shall overcome and My chains are gone while the children take turns later asking the elders about their experiences as black Canadians over the years.

It’s what you would expect of a Sunday service at the end of February for a predominantly black congregation. But the church itself has a special place historically in Toronto — as the site of one of the first places of worship for those early slaves who had made their way north to freedom in the early 1800s.

But as Canada wraps up Black History Month at the end of this week, historians, community leaders and others are expressing mixed thoughts on the effectiveness of the now almost 20-year-old celebration. Though each agrees that the focus on the past should ultimately be a way of looking for a better future.

“We are celebrating our heritage, we are excited for what our forefathers have done for us in the previous generation — the struggle for freedom and the Underground Railroad that Washington Christian, our founder, came through. But the plight for his goal for a ministry wasn’t about our blackness,” said Gibbs.

“It was about our faith and our faith has evolved some almost 200 years later… I now consider us [not a black church], but a diverse church.”

Founded by fugitive slaves

Canada was a haven to those seeking refuge and the Underground Railroad brought between 30,000 and 40,000 black slaves north to freedom in Canada, with most of them settling in southern Ontario and Atlantic Canada, specifically Nova Scotia. 

Twelve men and women, who had escaped through the Railroad started the congregation here in 1826 — eight years before the British Empire saw the abolition of slavery, and 37 years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

After local white churches created impossible standards for these former slaves to meet in order to attend worship in Toronto, the group started their own community of faith.

Washington Christian, a former slave from Virginia, led the group of worshippers in services outdoors, in homes and rented properties until they were able to fund their own building in 1841, according to the church’s website.

Although that building no longer stands as their home (their present-day location in Chinatown was completed in 1955), the congregation has been going strong for more than 187 years in the heart of the city.

In a service honouring the group's collective past, Pastor Gibbs wants everyone in the pews — of all stripes and backgrounds — to start focusing on the future.

"The church evolved out of a very traditional context. We’re very historical," Gibbs said. "But the notion of history and tradition, I think, stifles the context for modernizing the church to become relevant to the current generation and the current church and society we are living in."

Kevin Dill, a deacon at the church, hopes that First Baptist can continue to look out towards the greater community, and not focus solely on its "blackness."

He acknowledges that the historical past is intrinsic to understanding where the congregation is now, but he wants to focus on building bridges across communities, through the outreach work that is the crux of their ministry. 

"We are a church whose members just happen to be mostly black," Dill said. "We recognize our history, we’re very proud of what Elder Washington did. but we have to get ready for the next generation."

Ongoing prejudice

But looking ahead doesn’t mean the old stories should be left behind or that all problems have been overcome.

In 2009, for example, the church was vandalized by someone or some group who wrote "God loves white people" on its door.

Although everyone at the congregation maintained a "move on" attitude, it’s events like that that demonstrated the value — and possible shortcomings — of Black History Month.

Deacon Lorene Slaughter has been attending First Baptist for more than 40 years. She, along with many others in the congregation, hails from Dartmouth, N.S., where there were many, once rather insular, black communities originating from the mid-1800s.

"I just get fearful that it becomes a nice word and it has no meaning," Slaughter says of the concept of Black History Month. "It's lost its effectiveness, and I think we need to get back to the beginning," she adds, recounting her own struggles in dealing with prejudice over the years.

That’s something that Adrienne Shadd, a freelance writer and researcher of black history, agrees with. Shad worries that while the shining moments of black history, like the the success of the Underground Railroad, are often taught and talked about in February, the full and very complicated past isn’t always explored.

In the rush to paint Canada as a wonderful haven — in contrast to what was happening in America at the time — historians often fail to acknowledge the struggles black Canadians endured after arriving here.

"My issues with Black History Month in Canada is that it’s always the Underground Railroad and Canada is this great country because we accepted all these people. But they don’t want to talk about slavery in Canada and everything that happened before or everything that happened after," Shadd said.

"I would like people to look at how black Canadians have influenced the country. That might not be easy right away, but we obviously have influenced it," she says. "We built the roads and the railways and constructed the houses."

Shad argues that there is much more history to examine pertaining to black Canadians, and that  viewing it only through the prism of "black history" is part of the problem as it really should be seen as part of the larger Canadian context. .

Pastor Gibbs agrees. What's more, he says, the lessons of black history, like the overcoming of obstacles, can contribute to a richer discussion and inspire other groups.

"So we can share in our own struggle as an example of how we have overcome," he says. “But it’s not just us. It’s the First Nations. And it’s not just the First Nations, but it’s the immigrants who are coming in from Europe, it’s the new immigrants coming from Africa. It’s everyone."