UPDATE: Chatham-Kent council votes to rename Uncle Tom’s Road

Uncle Tom's Road sign (via Google Street View)

A rural roadway near Dresden is getting a new name, due to what the municipality said are derogatory ties to slavery.

Municipal councillors voted 11-7 Monday night to rename Uncle Tom’s Road to Freedom Road.

Councillors Mark Authier, Michael Bondy, Anthony Ceccacci, Marjorie Crew, Aaron Hall, Melissa Harrigan, Karen Kirkwood-Whyte, M. Clare Latimer, Brock McGregor, and Trevor Thompson all voted in favour of the name change along with Mayor Darrin Canniff.

Councillors Joe Faas, Amy Finn, Jamie McGrail, Carmen McGregor, Steve Pinsonneault, Doug Sulman, and John Wright all voted against the change.

Uncle Tom’s Road is located southwest of Dresden and features the property containing Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site. The site was part of land purchased in 1841 to establish the Dawn Settlement – a refuge for the many fugitives from slavery who escaped to Canada from the United States. The Josiah Henson Interpretive Centre, located on the site, houses a collection of 19th-century artifacts and rare books pertinent to the abolitionist era, as well as displays highlighting Reverend Josiah Henson’s life.

According to a municipal staff report, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is maintained for the public by the Ontario Heritage Trust, an agency of the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, which conserves provincially significant cultural heritage.

Earlier this spring, the trust requested that Chatham-Kent rename Uncle Tom’s Road to Freedom Road.

“Over many years, the Ontario Heritage Trust has worked with the municipality and Black history sites in the area to showcase Ontario’s Black history and promote tourism in the region,” read the report. “Through this work, the trust has made a significant commitment to anti-Black racism education and inclusive programming.”

According to the municipality, the trust identified an opportunity to address issues of racism and biases reflected in the term ‘Uncle Tom’, which it said embodies many of the prejudices and biases at the root of anti-Black racism.

“The term ‘Uncle Tom’ embodies many of the prejudices and biases at the root of anti-Black racism. Today, as a result of the popularity of mid-19th century minstrel shows that distorted the character of Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, the term implies a person of African descent is a traitor to their race, and as such the phrase is perceived as derogatory and harmful to many within the Black community,” the staff report read. “Through interpretation, the trust has endeavoured to correct the myth regarding ‘Uncle Tom’ and re-establish the connection of the novel to the anti-slavery movement. The trust, however, concluded that to continue to use ‘Uncle Tom’ in association with Josiah Henson does a disservice to honouring his inspiring and instructive legacy.”

Staff said renaming the road would allow the trust and the municipality to not only help combat racism but also elevate the story of the Black presence in this region of the province while reaching a wider audience.

The name change will take place on July 25, the last week of business prior to Emancipation Day, which commemorates the abolishment of slavery by the British Empire on August 1, 1834.

“Emancipation Day is being celebrated at Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Saturday, July 30, 2022,” read the report. “It is anticipated that road signage will be changed out during this week in advance of local celebrations.”

According to staff, there are 17 rural and farm properties fronting Uncle Tom’s Road, seven residences of which have an Uncle Tom’s Road 911 number.

The report acknowledges that a name change would significantly impact property owners along the road, adding that the inconvenience is a big reason that road names are rarely changed.

“Similar to when someone’s address changes when they move, a road name change will initiate a change of a person’s documents and accounts where their address is included,” the report read. “While there are likely to be some fees for certain changes required, fees are generally low if there are any at all. It is recognized that it is the inconvenience of the change that is most impactful. It requires a lot of time to arrange these changes across the many personal accounts someone may hold.”

Municipal staff will engage with neighbours during the implementation of the change and help as needed. In addition, representatives of Uncle Tom’s Cabin have met with several property owners over the past few months regarding the proposal to prepare them for the potential name change.

There will also be “negligible costs” related to the replacement of road signs and advertising, according to staff.