'A huge part of our local history': A look back at Emancipation Day in Windsor

Emancipation Day, celebrated each year on Aug. 1, commemorates the abolition of slavery across the British Empire. The Slavery Abolition Act received royal assent on Aug. 28, 1833, but the legislation wouldn't come into force across the Empire and its colonies until Aug. 1, 1834. 

'This is just my leg of the journey, carrying the torch to keep the spirit of Emancipation alive'

Irene Moore Davis is the president of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society. She says she remembers the stories she's heard about Emancipation Day celebrations in their heyday. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

Irene Moore Davis grew up her whole life hearing about Windsor's renowned Emancipation Day celebrations, but never had a chance to experience them for herself because they happened before she was born. 

Emancipation Day, celebrated each year on Aug. 1, commemorates the abolition of slavery across the British Empire.

The Slavery Abolition Act received royal assent on Aug. 28, 1833, but the legislation wouldn't come into force across the Empire and its colonies until Aug. 1, 1834. 

Though communities across Canada, including here in Windsor-Essex, held events in honour of the abolition of slavery, it wasn't until 1932 — almost 100 years after the Slavery Abolition Act came into force — that the celebrations which Davis heard about came into prominence. 

Shown is the Jackson Park bandshell, which in 1957 served as a notable location in Windsor's Emancipation Day history. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

"It brought people to this region from all over North America," said Davis. "Fabulous entertainers came here. There were great politicians and civil rights leaders who came."

According to Bradley Wade Jones, president of the Emancipation Day Committee of Windsor, 1932 was the year that Windsor resident Walter Perry organized the first celebration that would come to be known as the 'Greatest Freedom Show on Earth.' 

"It's something that really put Windsor on the map back in 1932, when Walter Perry brought Emancipation [Day] to Windsor," said Jones.

Windsorites explain Emancipation Day

3 years ago
Duration 0:26
Having received royal assent on Aug. 28, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 made slavery illegal across the British Empire on Aug. 1, 1834. Almost two centuries later, in 2008, the Province of Ontario declared that Aug. 1 would be known as Emancipation Day.

Among the most famous names who attended Perry's celebrations were Martin Luther King Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Benjamin Mays, Fred Shuttlesworth, Adam Clayton Powell and United States First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Performers like Diana Ross, The Temptations, Steve Wonder and The Supremes all attended and performed throughout the years, drawing in crowds of hundreds of thousands of people during the height of the celebration.

'Kind of lost steam'

Despite the Emancipation Day's illustrious history in Windsor, hard times changed the course of the city's festivities.

In 1957, a fire consumed the grandstand in Jackson Park, which had been the site of speeches from civil rights giants, as well as some of the greatest performers to grace any stage. 

"It was also a place where local people of African descent were honoured for the achievements that they had attained and really celebrated in front of a crowd that was often not from this region and where we could focus on black excellence in a big way," said Davis. "When [the] bandshell became unusable ... it really broke the community's heart."

Almost 10-years-later, the July 1967 Detroit Riots convinced Windsor officials to deny organizers necessary permits to stage an Emancipation Day celebration.

"It became, unfortunately, necessary to move the festival over to another part of the city where it kind of lost steam," said Davis. "There have been multiple attempts to reclaim it and re-energize Emancipation, but it hasn't quite hit that level that it was at its heyday."

Keeping the spirit of Emancipation alive

Beyond the gathering of famous names and now-historical figures, previous celebrations included parades, Miss International Sepia pageants, carnivals and barbeques.

"I missed all of that," said Davis. "It's a huge part of our local history — our regional history — and it would be great to see it reclaim its space as one of the great festivals for which this place used to be known."

In recent years, community groups like the Emancipation Day Committee of Windsor have tried to reclaim the grandeur of celebrations past. 

Still, not every modern iteration of Emancipation Day in Windsor has been a total success. In 2016, a lack of funding led to the cancellation of that year's festivities.

Then, in 2017, low turnout led to a cancellation of Sunday events. 

This year, however, Jones is determined to carry on the legacy of past Emancipation Day organizers. 

Bradley Wade Jones is the president of the Emancipation Day Committee of Windsor. He says his group is part of a long line of community organizations dedicated to highlighting the importance of Emancipation Day. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

"It's very important to us descendants of the Underground Railroad to know our history," said Jones. 

"There's a great number of people of black descent that can certainly not trace their history back to Africa. It's bad enough that enough of our history has been removed from us. To say 'Let's not have Emancipation Day anymore' is just adding insult to injury."

Jones said "carrying the torch" is his leg of the journey. 

"To me, no matter where these celebrations take place, it's just important that they happen and that they're accessible to the community and that everyone can feel a part of it," said Davis.

This year's Emancipation Day festivities are scheduled for Aug. 3, 2019 in Lanspeary Park. 

With files from Tahmina Aziz


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