Celebrating Emancipation Day: The greatest freedom show on earth

Emancipation parade in Windsor, August 1952 (Photo © Archives of Ontario)

Photo: Emancipation parade in Windsor, August 1952 (Photo © Archives of Ontario)


Steven Cook

Black heritage

Published Date: Sep 08, 2005

His name was Walter Perry; they called him "Mr. Emancipation." Born in Windsor in 1899, this great-grandson of slaves drew thousands of spectators each year to his hometown from both sides of the border. They flooded the streets to take part in his celebration of the abolition of slavery. Frustrated, however, with the brawling that the festivities had become known for, Perry reorganized the event in 1935.

"I called together a group of forward-thinking Americans and Canadians, and we had the nucleus of the celebrations as we know them today. Some would refer to it as 'the greatest freedom show on earth'.” Over the years, the event grew to include parades, midway rides, costumes and beauty pageants. The event even attracted the Motown talents of The Supremes and Stevie Wonder.

Perry’s “freedom show” celebrated Emancipation Day – the end of slavery in Canada and the British Empire. Many communities in Ontario began celebrating Emancipation Day after the Abolition of Slavery Act, which became law on August 1, 1834. The day was especially popular in places where freedom seekers from plantations in the United States settled – most notably Sandwich (now Windsor), Toronto, Hamilton and Owen Sound. And, of course, the Dawn Settlement in Dresden, Ontario – where Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site sits today – celebrated, too.

In the 19th century, Emancipation Day was an important expression of identity for the Black community and anti-slavery activists. It gave people the opportunity to celebrate the end of slavery in Canada and the British Empire with parades, music, food and dancing. The day also provided a vehicle to lobby for Black rights in Canada and the abolition of American slavery.

American abolitionist Frederick Douglass joined Josiah Henson at the Dawn Settlement in 1854 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of British Emancipation. Douglass wrote:

"The day was full of promise for a joyous and profitable celebration . . . People began to pour in from the vicinity, attired in their neatest and best – colored people nearly all. They knew what they were about. A bitter experience of slavery in the States had taught them the value of liberty, and they embraced gladly the opportunity this celebration afforded them of manifesting their sense of its value."

Emancipation Day continues in Ontario today. In 2005, Owen Sound marked its 143rd anniversary while Windsor celebrated its 172nd. Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site has revived the spirit of emancipation – celebrated all those years ago by Josiah Henson and other freedom seekers. Through these combined efforts, the spirit of trailblazers such as Walter Perry, Frederick Douglass and Josiah Henson lives on – a community spirit celebrating freedom and human rights.