Here at the Oshawa Museum, work has begun to tell a more complete, more diverse, history of Oshawa. This work has uncovered an interesting history of an everyday family who happened to be black.
Research into early black history in the Oshawa area began in 2011 after we were asked to participate in an event celebrating Black History Month. Research such as this begins with census records. It is these records that provide researchers with the information concerning the make-up of the community. The earliest census for this area was conducted in 1852. While the census information for the village of Oshawa has been lost, there is a record for East Whitby Township, which today is part of Oshawa.
The data collected for 1852 included topics such as name, age, place of birth, occupation and religion. The enumerator was also asked to collect information on race. It is the information collected in this column that would become the basis of our research. After going through each page of the census and noting the name of each person indicated as being “Colored persons – Negroes,” it was determined that 17 people in East Whitby Township were listed on the census records as being as such. With a population of 8,479, that meant that 0.2 per cent of the population was listed as black.
Within that 0.2 per cent was the Andrews family, and it was by chance that we discovered we already had information on this family in the archival holdings. It turned out that while I was combing through the census records, another staff member was researching the Harbour Pioneer Cemetery and had come across the same family name. When we pulled the file related to the family, we came across some very interesting research that had begun 20 years prior – correspondence and genealogy records started by a member of the Pankhurst family had lead to a connection with the Andrews family and the fact that they were of black ancestry.
The family can be traced through the matriarch Wealthy Andrews. Wealthy was born in Vermont around 1795. Vermont was an anti-slavery state and it appears that Wealthy’s family was free. It also appears that sometime around 1821, Wealthy married a man by the name of Peter Andrews. It also appears that this was an interracial marriage – the first of three interracial marriages in the family.
The Andrews family moved from Vermont to Lower Canada, or Quebec, before arriving in East Whitby Township sometime before 1852. It was here that Wealthy’s daughter Mary found love and was married to George Dunbar on Dec. 10, 1855. This marriage was significant, as not only did Elder Thomas Henry witness it, but it also appears to be an interracial marriage, as the groom is listed as Scottish.
Tracing the Andrews family through the census records proved to be very interesting and very telling of the time period. Each census listing sees a change in their ethnicity or race. In the 1852 census the family is listed as being “Negro,” the 1861 makes no note at all, the 1871 listed them as being African and the 1881 lists them as being Scottish and English. This family highlights an issue that has made researching racial diversity in Canada challenging, the fact that people of mixed race were often undercounted and listed as being of either French or English origin.
The family continued to grow and prosper in East Whitby. Mary’s son Lafayette purchased part of Lot 11, Broken Front concession and he is listed in the 1881 census as being a lawyer. Mary’s daughter Margaret married Henry Pankhurst on Dec. 20, 1883 and this is where the Pankhurst family member who had been researching the family fits in. The marriage of Henry and Margaret was an interracial marriage and it was a marriage that was not accepted by the groom’s family, resulting in a permanent alienation from that side of the family.
Despite the family drama, Margaret and Henry went on to raise three children, one of whom served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the other was drafted into the U.S. Army during the First World War.
There are no longer descendants of this family living in Oshawa. Of the three children, only Albert Pankhurst married and had children. However, he and his wife Martha moved to the United States and that is where their family continues to reside. The other children, Ward and Greta, lived in Oshawa until their deaths. Prior to her death in 1983, Greta donated a collection of children’s toys to the museum. These toys are an integral part of our Christmas display and it wasn’t until we began researching Oshawa’s black history that we fully understood the importance of these toys.