This post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca
By Colleen Burgess and Thomas Peace
In 1898, T. Watson Smith delivered a detailed lecture on the history of slavery in Canada to the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society. In it he lamented:
Our historians have almost wholly ignored the existence of slavery in Canada. A few references to it are all that can be found in Kingsford’s ten volumes; Haliburton devotes a little more than a half-page to it; Murdoch contents himself with the reproduction of a few slave advertisements; Clement, the author of the school history accepted by nearly all the provinces, dismisses it with a single sentence; and in the long manuscript catalogue of Canadian books, pamphlets and papers gathered during a long life-time by the late Dr. T. B. Akins – a large and very valuable collection – the word “slavery” nowhere appears, even as a sub-heading.
The end of this quotation is perhaps most direct. In 1898, Watson Smith is saying: most historians do not see slavery as a subject requiring independent study.
The work of historians like Afua Cooper, Karolyn Smardz-Frost, Marcel Trudel, James W. St. G. Walker, and Amani Whitfield (among many others) demonstrates that nearly 120 years later this is no longer the case.
Last month, though, following the publishing here of a piece about treaties and public memory in Ontario that drew on Drew Lopenzina’s concept of Unwitnessing, and a presentation about the Library of Congress classification system run by Colleen in Tom’s North American history course, we began to think that perhaps things haven’t changed as much as we thought they had.
The Library of Congress Classification system (LCC) and the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) continue to reflect the world Watson Smith so severely critiqued. Scholarship has changed, but the frames within which it has been placed have not. If we are going to witness the way past assumptions about the world continue to structure our present, we feel a need to make these biases even more transparent.Continue reading “19th Century Legacies in 21st Century Historical Research Practice”