I am a sixth generation descendant of early Black settler to New Brunswick. My ancestor Solomon Kendall first served with the Guides and Pioneers, settling in Lower Queensbury, New Brunswick, in the early 1800s. My mother was the last generation raised on the old homestead and has passed down our oral history to me.
I have always known my family’s history but in the last five years have been doing much more in-depth research. I take our oral histories and find the documentation to back them up, painting a beautiful picture of a tight knit community that was proud of its presence in New Brunswick. I am blessed to be a part of an incredible network of Black historians and genealogists that descend from early Black settlers to New Brunswick.
I write this review of Black Loyalists in New Brunswick by Stephen Davidson (Halifax: Formac, 2020) with mixed emotions. When asked to review work from outside our community, it feels as though we are obligated to praise the author for paying attention to our history.
While the author has done a great deal of research, this book is the perfect example of why the Black community needs to be given the opportunity to write its own history.
In reading the eight individual stories in this book, I found myself often arguing with what the author had written based on both my own research findings and the oral histories passed down to me. Within the first few stories I found that a lot of sources for facts are not noted. There is also a lot of repetition of the “White” history of the time, as if to fill up space in the book.
A lot of this early history, especially Black history, must be deciphered and constructed from very few documents. This leaves room for the researcher’s interpretation of what those documents mean and how some of the people relate to each other. The stories in this book that have more documentation are fairly well done, while the ones where only a few documents exist contain a lot of the authors theories and suppositions about what it was like for the people he is writing about.
Some of the stories in this book are not new. The stories of Thomas Hide, John Patterson, Pompey and Cairo Rumsey, and Thomas Peters were all posted to the Atlantic Canada Virtual Archives website as early as 2016 (possibly earlier). Thomas Peters’ story especially has been widely shared for many years by one his descendants, David Peters, a fact that is not mentioned at all in the book.
While these eight stories were a decent attempt at making Black history in New Brunswick more widely accessible, there are so many other incredible stories that need to also be told, particularly by Black historians.
When compared to one of New Brunswick’s foundational books for early Black History, The Blacks in New Brunswick by W. A. Spray from 1972, Davidson’s book lacks in the true perspective of the Black community.
Spray worked closely with many in the Black Community while writing his book. Davidson’s book is a compilation of facts that the author has attempted to fit into his own narrative without any input from the Black community, that I am aware of.
The timing of this book I also find problematic. I do not know for how long this book was planned. However, it was released only months after the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction here in Canada. This makes me question if this was aimed at capitalizing on the fact that more of Canada’s population is paying attention to the rich Black history here.
In an October 23, 2020, CBC radio interview Davidson, while talking about Black loyalists, stated: “they were dealt bad cards.” Approaching our history as if it were bad luck is not at all how the community would see it. We were not “dealt bad cards,” our cards were stolen from us! It was because of deliberate actions that my ancestors had their identity, culture and rights as human beings taken from them for centuries.
The Black community tends to hold its history close fearing that others will “take” our information and try to create their own narratives with it. My great grandmother believed that “they don’t like us, but yet they want to claim what is ours.” I believe this is a feeling that is still widespread today. As one of only a small number of Black historians in New Brunswick, there is a feeling that we are not respected for our knowledge. We often have others constantly asking us for our research but when we pose a question or emit an opinion about the way they are using that information, we are labeled as problematic or treated like the “White” academic community knows our history better than we do.
I have watched my mother and many cousins research and share our history over the last twenty years and, until this past spring it, was still largely ignored. Our community has a good size network of genealogists and historians that share information amongst themselves. I strongly believe rather than “tapping into their knowledge,” we need to empower and support those Black historians to write their own history.
While this book could be an interesting read to anyone that is curious about New Brunswick Black history, I caution readers to keep in mind that it is written by someone outside the Black community, with no input from Black New Brunswickers, so it should not be used as a primary historical resource.
Jennifer Dow is a historian of Black Loyalist descent from New Brunswick.