Southwestern Ontario council renames Uncle Tom's Road over links to anti-Black racism

·4 min read
Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site is in Dresden, Ont., in Chatham-Kent. The road leading to the site will now be named Freedom Road, after members of the community advocated for the change.  (Heritage Ontario/YouTube - image credit)
Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site is in Dresden, Ont., in Chatham-Kent. The road leading to the site will now be named Freedom Road, after members of the community advocated for the change. (Heritage Ontario/YouTube - image credit)

The name Uncle Tom will soon be gone from a road leading to an important Black historical site near the small southwestern Ontario community of Dresden.

On Monday night, Chatham-Kent council approved the name change, from Uncle Tom's Road to Freedom Road, by an 11-7 vote.

The change was requested by the Ontario Heritage Trust, which maintains the property known as Uncle Tom's Cabin. It points out there are heavy ties between the term Uncle Tom and anti-Black racism.

The term is a slur that many in the Black community find offensive. The Ontario Heritage Trust said times have changed and the name should be a thing of the past.

"Uncle Tom's Road — if we go back — 1998 is when the municipality of Chatham-Kent was amalgamated, that name suddenly appeared on this road," explained Steven Cook, manager of Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site near Dresden.

"For those of us in the Black community, we understand being called an Uncle Tom is really an insult. You are saying someone of African Canadian heritage is a sellout of their race, and you should really be ashamed with yourself for being associate with that term."

Cook said the person who became known as the real Uncle Tom, Josiah Henson, was the opposite of a sellout of his race. Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site is built on the settlement that Henson, who was born enslaved in the U.S. and escaped to Canada, helped found in 1841. The community grew to around 500 settlers.

Courtesy Uncle Tom's Cabin Historical Site
Courtesy Uncle Tom's Cabin Historical Site

Cook said Henson became a teacher and author, and made the journey on the Underground Railroad in reverse to save the lives of enslaved Black people.

"So you wouldn't apply that name to someone who contributed so much, and that's why we wanted to correct the record," said Cook. "While Uncle Tom lived on the pages of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book, he didn't live on this road. Josiah Henson lived on this road, and so that's why we wanted to better honour his legacy."

Council debates name change

John Wright was one of the councillors to raise concerns at Monday night's Chatham-Kent council meeting.

Wright pointed to issues he faced when the name of the road his shop is on was changed.

"When you do change a name, you have to change your license, insurance, health card, bank notes, post office," he said. "I ended up paying to have the name changed on my deed. It was quite an ordeal."

The municipality said seven homes are on the road.

Coun. Joe Faas said he's concerned a name change might confuse people looking to visit the longstanding site.

"I understand the reasoning why they want to do this, but I guess is that going to alter the history that we've been known to enjoy, the impact that it could have on tourism, because people might not connect the dots?"

Coun. Michael Bondy said he understands the reasons for the name change, but expressed concerns about "revisionist history" and "political correctness."

"I wonder, 'Where do we stop? What's next?' I don't know. Orville Wright Pool [in Chatham]. Was Orville Wright a bad guy? I don't know. He seemed like probably a pretty good guy to me," said Bondy.

"You know, if we endlessly rename things to, not bland names, but some sort of name that offends nobody ever ... We've only seen this really happening in the last four or five years, I guess. You know, the renaming of MacDonald Hall in Windsor, Ryerson University. It seems like, you know, this could never end, and we could end up with Street A, B,C, D, as long as that doesn't offend anybody."

Cook said he was surprised by the close vote, considering the arguments made by the community.

"I understand the familial connection to the name, and people don't like change. It's difficult sometimes, but I think when they hear the reasoning of why we're doing it, that's really important," said Cook.

The name Freedom Road has a connection to Henson, said Cook, who once told a passing traveller he wouldn't waste his newfound freedom.

The municipality said there will be "negligible" cost to replacing the road signs. The change will take place before Emancipation Day celebrations in August.

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.

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