Windsor's Emancipation Day history turning into documentary series

A team from Toronto is working on a documentary series about Windsor's Emancipation Day celebrations from the 1930s to the 1960s.

'Black history is Canadian history'

Tonya Sutherland, Audra Gray, Catherine MacDonald, and local teacher Shantelle Browning-Morgan stand by the bandshell that was once a big part of the Emancipation Day celebration. (Stacey Janzer/CBC)

Drill teams marching down Ouellette Avenue, Motown music blaring and the smell of barbecue coming from Jackson Park meant it was Aug. 1 in Windsor.

Emancipation Day was a huge celebration in the city, bringing together people from as far away as West Virginia to Windsor to celebrate. A group of women from the Toronto area are working on a documentary series and potential drama series about the event in Windsor during the its heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Series creator Audra Gray said she wanted to know more after watching "The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth" by R.J. Huggins.

"I didn't really know very much about African Canadian history and you know even just in high school, throughout school never really hearing very much about this part of history," she said.

Born in Canada to Jamaican parents, she said she felt disconnect from Canadian history and knew that by understanding more about it she would learn more about herself.

"I wanted to get a sense about how I connected with this history," Gray said.

Their slogan is "Black history is Canadian history." She said the Emancipation Day celebrations encapsulate that slogan. It was a time when people of all races would come to Windsor, including historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt. 

"We don't know very much about it," said Gray. "Obviously it's history that's very familiar to Windsor but for the rest of the country, for the rest of our province, it'd be great to share more of this history."

Members of the Jackson Park Project at the front gates to Jackson Park. (The Jackson Park Project)

To do that, she enlisted the help of University of Toronto history student Tonya Sutherland. They've been working for two and half years, interviewing people with ties to the celebration. Irene Moore Davis, the president of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, has provided photos and documents to the project.

Sutherland tracked down some old programs for Emancipation Day, which she said gives a real glimpse into the past.

"Advertisements fill the pages, so you know what businesses were around at that time, which ones were supporting the parade in the celebration and then there will be a lot of think pieces," Sutherland said.

Some of the works included takes on civil rights, general equality, even feminism. 

Windsor's Emancipation Day celebration

2 years ago
Duration 0:29
CBC archival video of Windsor's Emancipation Day celebration

The project plans to branch out. Sutherland wants to create a digital archive of the work so people beyond Windsor can learn about the city and its history.

They also plan to create curriculum. Catherine MacDonald is working on that. She's a retired teacher, who taught history for 40 years. She said there is some great academic material to teach black history, but much of it hasn't filtered down to teachers and schools.

MacDonald is hoping what comes of this project will compliment the better-known aspects of black history like the Underground Railroad and the American Civil Rights Movement.

"I see Emancipation Day as really the microcosm of the Canadian Civil Rights Movement and this is something that we really need to teach our students," she said.

Through the stories they're hearing and materials they find, they hope it can teach future generations about the struggles and the resilience and resistance to the racism of that time.

The Jackson Park Project interviewing Irene Moore Davis about Emancipation Day. (The Jackson Park Project)

"We still see the echoes, it's still there. Issues that we researched in the past that we still see today and I think it's really time to open up the dialogue about that," MacDonald said.

Local teacher Shantelle Browning-Morgan met with the team. She said the Emancipation celebration is included in the African Canadian Roads to Freedom curriculum documents, but this project will be more concentrated on what took place in the 1930s to the 1960s.

Browning-Morgan is an ESL teacher at Kennedy Collegiate. 

"I find that students are always very inspired when I teach them black history and stories of the black experience, especially the local ones," she said.

The celebration of the day is an important part of our local history and that makes it more meaningful for students, she said.

"I think the story of Emancipation celebrations highlight resiliency, community, courage, hope, and justice to think that the descendants of enslaved Africans who courageously escaped bondage, through harsh conditions to arrive here in Essex County and endure further oppression, then create an outdoor festival that becomes the largest outdoor festival in North America, that's incredible," said Browning-Morgan.

"I feel inspired just thinking about it. It's no wonder it was called 'The Greatest Freedom Show on Earth,'" she said.


Stacey Janzer was born and raised in Essex County. Self-described Canadian treasure. She currently works as a video journalist at CBC Windsor. Email her at


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