Windsor Names Mary E. Bibb Park in Sandwich Town as Part of Black History Month
Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens and Councillor Fabio Costante joined with community members today to celebrate the naming of Mary E. Bibb Park in Sandwich Town as part of Black History Month commemorations in Windsor-Essex. (See video of the announcement on Facebook.)
In light of pandemic restrictions on public gatherings, the unveiling of the park’s new sign bearing Mary E. Bibb’s name took place as part of a virtual event. City Council approved the request from the Friends of the Court to rename the park in accordance with the City’s Naming, Renaming or Dedicating Municipal Property, Buildings and Parks Policy, which allows for a name change to honour a group or individual who has contributed toward the development of the city of Windsor. The park, previously named Mackenzie Hall Park, has a Department of Canadian Heritage historical plaque honouring Mary and Henry Bibb as the publishers of The Voice of the Fugitive, the first anti-slavery newspaper published in Canada by people of African descent.
The unveiling of the park’s new name is especially significant as part of Black History Month, a time when people across Canada celebrate, honour and reflect on the contributions of Black Canadians. Black History Month is also commemorated in the United States, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Commemorations of this sort help all Windsor residents to learn about Black Canadians whose stories should never be forgotten and to engage in meaningful dialogue to further combat systemic and systematic racism in our society.
In recent years, the City of Windsor has invested significantly to tell the stories of Sandwich Town in meaningful ways, including through the installation of the Sandwich Town Arch and the Tecumseh Brock Monument, and last year’s unveiling of the Black History Murals in their new home at Paterson Park. Sandwich Town is a historically and culturally significant area.
“Following a request from Mackenzie Hall’s Friends of the Court volunteer group, and with unanimous approval from Council, I am proud that we have renamed the Mackenzie Hall Park as Mary E. Bibb Park. This is in honour of an American-born educator and abolitionist leader who is considered to be the first female Black journalist in Canada, who was involved in anti-slavery activities, and who — along with her husband, Henry, and from Sandwich Town — used their newspaper to help supporters of the Underground Railroad. Windsor has a long history as a place of refuge for those seeking a good life. Mary Bibb helped to shape our community, and we are honouring her as we continue to nurture and support a strong, culturally rich Windsor — one of Canada’s most diverse communities.” – Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens
“Sandwich Town is one of the most historic areas of our community. I’m proud of this most recent example of the City of Windsor honouring our past, telling our stories and highlighting the strength and resilience of Black Canadians. Building on the positive impact of many recent developments in Sandwich Town, Mary E. Bibb Park will be a gathering place for people, celebrations and ideas. Renaming this park is a way to honour the roots of our community, while sending a strong message of inclusivity, diversity and belonging to residents of Sandwich Town and the broader community. I’m grateful to the Friends of the Court and all those who helped make this happen.” – Councillor Fabio Costante, Ward 2
“The Friends of the Court (FOTC) is dedicated to the continuous improvement of Mackenzie Hall and the surrounding grounds. We are thrilled to see this initiative to rename the park go forward in Ward 2, for the benefit of a more inclusive and balanced vision of the heritage district of Sandwich Town and Windsor at large. One of our current board members, Teajai Travis, has used the park to hold cultural events over the past half-decade and took to calling the site ‘Mary E. Bibb Park,’ reflecting research into important stories about the neighbourhood. In renaming the park in Mary’s honour, the FOTC seek to open our collective community mind to untold histories, and an unsung figure of worth from our neighbourhood past.” – Elana Freeman, President, The Friends of the Court – Mackenzie Hall.
“Pathways to the Stars”
by Mary Ann Mulhern, Windsor’s Poet Laureate, in honour of Mary E. Bibb
Mary Bibb, a young black teacher
Taught children of her race
Here in Windsor
She pointed to the heavens
Invited black children
To reach for the stars
In a time when black children
Were kept away from books
Gateways to the universe
All the magic of words
Written on doors
Mary Bibb opened to them
Their brothers and sisters
About Mary E. Bibb
Mary Elizabeth Miles was a free woman born in Rhode Island in 1820. She had been trained as a school teacher and was very involved in the anti-slavery cause. Henry Bibb and Mary Miles married in 1847 and began a life together in Michigan. In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed a new law called The Fugitive Slave Act. It gave greatly enhanced powers to slaveholders so they could recover “servants” who had escaped to the Northern U.S. Having escaped enslavement, this made it far too dangerous for Henry to stay in Detroit, so he and Mary moved to Sandwich, Canada West — now Windsor, Ontario. They founded a school for Black children, who, because of racism, were not allowed to attend the public schools alongside white children. Mary Bibb taught the students attending the school.
Henry and Mary also started a newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive, in January, 1851. The first anti-slavery paper published in Canada by people of African descent, it was a vital means of communicating with Underground Railroad supporters and with the general public. The Bibbs’ newspaper also provided information useful in the resettlement of former slaves and free Black Americans in the British colony of Canada West (Ontario). A network of agents in the U.S. and Canada collected from subscribers and sent the money to Henry and Mary so they could run the newspaper.
In September 1851, the Bibbs called a conference in Toronto to discuss whether or not Canada was the best place for African Americans to seek freedom. More than 50 delegates came to the North American Convention, also called The Convention of Coloured Freemen. Henry and Mary also worked with abolitionists from Michigan to purchase and distribute farmland in Essex County to incoming freedom-seekers. The organization was called The Refugee Home Society.
Following Henry’s death, Mary stayed in Windsor for a time, running her school and then a retail store selling women’s clothing and accessories. In 1871, Mary moved to Brooklyn, New York, where she died in 1877.
Biographical and historical information courtesy of Professor Naa Afua Dadesen Cooper. “The Voice of the Fugitive: A Transnational Abolitionist Organ,” in A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Freedom and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderlands, eds. Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Tucker (Detroit: Wayne Statue University Press, 2016) 135-153; “We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up”: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History, (Reprint, 1999; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994). Winner of the Joseph Brant Award for Best History Book published in Ontario; and the Harriet Tubman Institute, an Organized Research Unit at York University.
Professor Naa Afua Dadesen Cooper led the initiative to erect the Parks Canada plaque honouring the Bibbs at the former Mackenzie Hall park as Persons of National Historic Significance in 2005. For more information on her work, please visit www.afuacooper.com.
About Mackenzie Hall, Mary E. Bibb Park, and the Friends of the Court
Windsor’s Mackenzie Hall is an historic gem in the community. It was built in 1855-1856 by Alexander Mackenzie, who became the second prime minister of Canada in 1873. Located in Sandwich Town, one of the most historic areas of Windsor, Mackenzie Hall is a living link between our colourful legal past and our artistic present. Originally a courthouse and jail until 1963, when it became the county headquarters, the building is now a cultural centre for the city. It features performing arts space, gallery space, meeting rooms, a large ballroom, and an historic courtroom still used for present-day legal proceedings.
The adjacent Mary E. Bibb Park contains a gazebo, an intimate outdoor amphitheatre, and tiered bench seating. The park is the site of weddings, concerts, performances, and cultural celebrations throughout the year.
The Friends of the Court is a dedicated volunteer group that first formed in 1981 to save the historic hall from deterioration and vacancy. Their fundraising efforts, combined with substantial municipal support, saw the building reopen to the public in 1985 as the premier arts, culture, and heritage hub for Sandwich Town. The Friends of the Court have assisted the City with the successful renovation and restoration of Mackenzie Hall. They have been actively involved in developing and strengthening the property and adjacent park space into what it is today. Since their inception, the group has provided a list of donations amounting to approximately $1 million, which has been used towards upgrades at the facility, making a difference in the lives of many people across Windsor-Essex. In recent years, they have received significant funding and partnership support from groups such as St. Clair College, Tim Hortons, The Keg, Southwestern Sales Corporation Ltd., and the Gordie Howe International Bridge Project.