Monday, October 3, 2022

Uncle Tom’s Road set to be re-named Freedom Road, museum site set to be re-named as well

With the pending name change of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Municipality of Chatham-Kent Council approved a recommended name change for Uncle Tom’s Road near Dresden.

The road is set to be named Freedom Road, effective July 25, 2022.

Council approved a series of recommendations from staff at their virtual meeting on Monday, June 20, 2022.

Ryan Jacques, director of planning, said the request to change the road name came from the Province of Ontario, through an agency of the Ministry of Culture, the Ontario Heritage Trust, who owns Uncle Tom’s Cabin site outside of Dresden.

“The museum site is planning on changing the name of the site,” Jacques said on Monday.

“I purposely left it out of the report in order to leave the announcement of that to the Ontario Heritage Trust and the site and this report was strictly on the road name. I understand that it would be a change… but with the museum changing its name, for the reasons stated in the report, I believe it is beneficial that the Municipality follows suit for the same reasons as well.”

In his staff report, Jacques said in support of the Ontario Heritage Trust’s “efforts to further combat anti-Black racism” the recommendations were made by staff.

“Over many years, the Ontario Heritage Trust has worked with the municipality and Black history sites in the area to showcase Ontario’s Black history and promote tourism in the region,” Jacques said in his report.

“Though this work, the Trust has made a significant commitment to anti-Black racism education and inclusive programming. As identified by the Trust, new opportunities exist to address issues of racism and biases reflected in the term ‘Uncle Tom’. As the collective understanding of the Black presence in Ontario continues to evolve, the Trust is able to interpret the story in a more respectful and sensitive manner.”

Jacques added: “The term ‘Uncle Tom’ embodies many of the prejudices and biases at the root of anti-Black racism. Today, as a result of the popularity of mid-19th century minstrel shows that distorted the character of Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, the term implies a person of African descent is a traitor to their race, and as such the phrase is perceived as derogatory and harmful to many within the Black community.”

Jacques said is his report through interpretation, the Trust has endeavored to correct the myth regarding ‘Uncle Tom’ and reestablish the connection of the novel to the anti-slavery movement.

“The Trust, however, concluded that to continue to use ‘Uncle Tom’ in association with Josiah Henson does a disservice to honoring his inspiring and instructive legacy,” Jacques wrote.

“By renaming of the road where the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site exists, the Trust (and the Municipality) is better positioned to further combat anti-Black racism and elevate the story of the Black presence in this part of the province while reaching a wider audience.”

Jacques said changing the name of Uncle Tom’s Road to Freedom Road has an impact on neighbour and property owners on the road.

“Similar to when someone’s address changes when they move, a road name change will initiate a change of a person’s documents and accounts where their address is included,” he wrote .

“While there are likely to be some fees for certain changes required, fees are generally low if there are any at all. It is recognized that it is the inconvenience of the change that is most impactful. It requires a lot of time to arrange these changes across the many personal accounts someone may hold. This impact to the public is one reason that road names are rarely changed.”

Jacques added: “Through implementation, Chatham-Kent will engage neighbours and assist as appropriate. Representatives of Uncle Tom’s Cabin have met with several property owners over the past few months regarding this proposal, so this change is somewhat anticipated, however not necessarily by all property owners along the road.”

At the meeting on Monday, Jacques said approximately seven households are located on Uncle Tom’s Road currently.

Staff was also directed by Council to notify affected property owners of the road name change by mail and the general public by local media advertisements and that planning services will engage with the neighbours, as appropriate, to assist with the change.

The Ontario Heritage Trust states Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site hosts interactive, thought-provoking exhibits exploring the life and leadership of Josiah Henson, an abolitionist, preacher and conductor of the Underground Railroad.

The site also explores the contributions of people of African descent to Canadian culture and society.

Each August Civic Holiday weekend, the site hosts Emancipation Day, with speakers, performers, exhibits and cuisine reflecting early Black life in Ontario.

During the summer season, the site is open most days from Saturday, May 21 to Friday, October 21.

For more details about the site, click here.

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