Museum Windsor aims to tell the stories of Black and Indigenous slaves owned by prominent local families

A local museum curator is trying to shed more light on a darker side of Windsor's past by telling the stories of the slaves owned by some of the city's prominent historical figures. 

The city's museum curator says she hopes the stories will become permanent exhibits

Museum Windsor curator Madelyn Della Valle says she's only just 'dipped her toe' into the research. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

A local museum curator is trying to shed more light on a darker side of Windsor's past by telling the stories of the slaves owned by some of the city's prominent historical figures. 

Curator Madelyn Della Valle for Museum Windsor told CBC News that in recent months she's started to research the lives of the Black people known to be enslaved by the Baby family, pronounced as Bobby.  

Windsor's Francois Baby House and Duff-Baby House are two heritage sites previously owned by Baby family members. The family, which is nationally recognized for their political achievements, were also slave owners. 

"What I really wanted to do was to look at creating some kind of stories for these people who were enslaved," Della Valle said. "Everybody always talks about the people who did the enslaving and that's important too, but my idea was to actually try to give a bit of a biography to the enslaved people themselves." 

Francois Baby House, a historic residence located on Pitt Street, was owned by local politician François Baby.  According to the City of Windsor's website, Francois' father, Jacques Duperon Baby, owned about 20 Black and Indigenous slaves, some of whom were inherited by Francois and his brother Jacques, also known as James. 

Meanwhile, Mill Street's Duff-Baby House was named after it's first two loyalist owners, Alexander Duff and James Baby. 

The Duff-Baby House in Sandwich Towne is a designated heritage site that has been visited by local families and classes. (City of Windsor)

"I think that it's important to give these enslaved people a voice and let their stories, as much as they can, speak for themselves because... the Baby family has obviously interpreted their stories for them," she said. "So I hope that eventually we'll be able to expand on the stories of these enslaved people and kind of give a better idea of what they might have been facing." 

Della Valle said she's hoping she can turn the stories of each former slave, whose names are already listed inside the museum, into a permanent exhibition at Francois Baby House. 

She said she's only just started doing research on Black slaves and hopes to also tell the stories of Indigenous ones.

Della Valle said she also hopes to look into the stories of the slaves owned by other local historical families. 

At this time, Della Valle said there's no set deadline for the project. 

Research an 'essential next step' 

President of Essex County Black Historical Research Society Irene Moore Davis said she's excited to hear that research is taking place and would like to see more of this sort of initiative happen in Windsor. 

"I think that's a really essential next step," Davis said. "I think that for a very long time children, adults, kids on field trips, visitors to Windsor have toured the Baby house and have sometimes gone to the Duff-Baby mansion and have not really had any sense of these slave owners, the history of either of those families."

On Sunday, five temporary plaques installed across Toronto quoted Davis and tell the slave-owning pasts of prominent historical families like Baby and Jarvis.

Irene Moore Davis, president of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, says telling the stories of former slaves is important to understand the past of our region. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

The signs were put up by an anonymous person, who Davis said is not of African descent but who wanted to show their allyship to the community.

One of the plaques, installed in the Baby Point area of Toronto, reads, "These roads are named after Jacques 'James' Baby. He was a member of the Baby family who enslaved at least 17 Black and Indigenous people in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Canada. Some of these enslaved people were 'passed down' through the generations of the Baby family."

Davis said while they were "fairly well-to-do" people, citing their involvement in the military and the Legislative Council of Upper Canada, their slave-owning history has rarely been recognized. 

"In all of that glorification of the Baby family, no one ever mentions they were slave owners," she said, adding that these slaves "were passed around like property."

She was quoted in the plaque saying, "What we accept, what we honour, who we choose to honour, says a lot about what we value as a society."

More information ideal to explain the past

As for whether Davis believes street names should be changed or statues of leaders with troubling pasts taken down, she said it depends on what the person did and believes that educating people might be the best path forward. 

A temporary plaque found near the Baby Point area in Toronto outlining the history of the Baby family and their slave-ownership (Irene Moore Davis/Twitter)

"I think that it's actually advantageous to add signage or add pieces of information, add plaques and definitely education programs so that people can be more aware of the true history, the complex history, the less rosy history," she said.

"We all have to be aware in this particular case that...not only did these people do some great things to build our nation and our communities, they also made use of enslaved Africans and Indigenous people and built a lot of their wealth and power on their back."

Davis said she appreciates the plaques and hopes the person who set them up can work with others in the city to make more permanent ones. 

Similarly, Della Valle said rather than hide the past, she'd like to see more stories being told. 

"I come from a museum background so my to interpret what happened in the past," she said. "I'd like to explain what happened in the past rather than just take things down."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from Ania Bessonov