Historian Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey tells the story of the African migrants who circulated between the Caribbean and the North America in the twentieth century, and how a subset of them built a transnational life, and racial solidarity, along the US-Canadian border.
As a worldwide movement to unite people of African descent, Pan-Africanism may have found its ideal reflected in a community that resided between Canada and the US in the early twentieth century. With fluid borders to aid their mobility, migrant blacks in the Great Lakes region forged a thriving community with arts, sports, intellectualism, and political consciousness at the center of social life. It was a brief yet remarkable piece of black diasporic history that calls into question the utility of rigid national borders and identities.
By Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey
The international refugee crisis—the result of internal strife and wars, poverty, climate change, and unstable governments—threatens the global order. In the Americas, this calamity is forcing migrants to seek safety and opportunity in the United States and Canada. From the turn of the twentieth century to the Great Depression, agricultural downturn, low standard of living, and natural disasters and epidemics compelled roughly 100,000 immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America to seek opportunity in the United States. Canada’s strict policies prohibiting black immigrants meant that fewer than three thousand entered the Dominion in the same period.
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, black bodies often circulated around the Caribbean and Central and North America, driven by plantation economies and imperial rivalries. In North America, in fact, cross-border migration specifically between the United States and Canada represented self-determination. For example, the Underground Railroad, a network of clandestine safe houses and passageways, facilitated the escape of tens of thousands of enslaved persons to northern US states or into British North America (Canada) during the antebellum period in the early 1800s. After Congress enacted the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a law that allowed the capture and return of runaways, upwards of thirty thousand fugitives and free persons crossed the border into Canada. Some of these refugees returned to fight in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Many more returned to the US in the promising Reconstruction years.
As disinherited peoples with a history of forced migration from Africa, New World enslavement, and quasi-freedom after abolition, African descendants often sought economic and political opportunities beyond the artificial and permeable borders of the nation-state, colony, or empire. More than just passive individuals who had little to offer, those who entered mainland North America, such as Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, leader of the largest Pan-African movement in history, and many others elevated the consciousness of African Americans, aiding the fight against Jim Crow laws.
In twentieth-century US and Canadian societies, the strivings of black folk, some of whom had Caribbean roots, symbolized a localized form of Pan-Africanism. In fact, Pan-Africanism as a project of racial redemption, self-determination, and transnational solidarity among diasporic Africans allowed black actors to negotiate and exploit two distinct yet similar regimes of racial caste in the United States and Canada, revealing the virtues, vices, and shifting opportunities of each country. Mapping Pan-Africanism in North America exposes the connective tissues that tie this community-building project to the Great Migration and its antecedent, the Underground Railroad.
Black migrants had a transnational outlook, as their allegiance to a specific place depended on the ebb and flow of race relations and other socioeconomic and political forces in a given period. Their racial identity helped them bridge borders. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, a group of highly mobile African descendants, who practiced a localized version of Pan-Africanism, lived in the United States and Canada—sometimes in the Caribbean—at different moments of their lives. They forged a continental consciousness as Pan-Africanists whose “citizenship” transcended the North American mainland and Caribbean Basin.
Pan-Africanists of Caribbean extraction “passed” as African Americans or African Canadians because of family reunification, work, or military service. Racial passing—which entails transitioning from one racial group to another to escape social, economic, and political discrimination—is a construct that sheds light on border-crossing as a form of citizenship passing. This process also allowed Canadians of African descent to pass for African Americans, and African Americans to pass for African Canadians. More than a racial phenomenon, “passing” was an act of movement and migration—leaving one sovereign soil for another. Therefore, citizenship passing, to borrow historian Allyson Hobbs’s analytical framework on racial passing, entailed a “chosen exile.”
For North Americans in general, the US-Canadian border constituted a “fluid frontier.” One historian described the Great Lakes region in particular as “a zone of cultural mixing and interchange.” Others wrote that US-Canadian cross-border migration symbolized a “great natural phenomenon,” perceiving the children of Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, as “eminently capable of allegiance to one country one day and to another the next.”
As Canada underwent rapid nation building at the turn of the twentieth century, US immigrants flocked to Canadian homesteads and industries. Between 1901 and 1931, two million US immigrants entered Canada. By 1931, however, only 344,374 appeared in the Census, underscoring a trend of return migration to the United States. “If we count all of Canadian stock,” wrote the country’s chief statistician in 1937, “perhaps a third of us are south of the line, whilst certainly not more than 1 percent of the Americans are north.” As a snapshot in time, decade by decade, census data can reveal only so much. It cannot capture the rich fluidity that characterized life along the 49th parallel, especially for North Americans who had a cross-border, Pan-African outlook.
A localized Pan-Africanism allowed black communities on both sides of the US-Canadian border to maintain freedom linkages, which also transcended gender. Working-class black women in Great Lakes cities, such as Beulah Cuzzens, lived transnational lives as they crisscrossed the border in search of leisure, work, and the familiarity of urban black communities during the Great Depression. A descendant of a free black community in southwestern Ontario dating back to the Underground Railroad, Cuzzens’s proximity to the border and frequent contact with African Americans in Great Lakes cities transformed her small, parochial region into a cross-border, cosmopolitan throughway. The workers, entertainers, hustlers, revelers, and even churchgoers that visited small towns and cities on the Canadian side from Windsor to Toronto heightened the local black populations’ commitment to human and civil rights in the inter- and postwar years.
Because of widespread racial discrimination in Canada’s labor market, Cuzzens, a teacher by profession, was an anomaly. “There weren’t too many [black] people well trained at this time in Chatham,” she said, “but those who did have anything to do at all had to go abroad.” Going abroad often meant finding work on the US side of the border. On weekdays, Cuzzens taught in a segregated classroom on the northwest shore of Lake Erie and on weekends she escaped with friends across the border to Detroit, Cleveland, or points beyond, where they had family and a vibrant network. “We always had someplace to go in Detroit: dances, theatres, parties. And this is when we met all the people of our time, our contemporaries. We met anybody who was anybody,” exclaimed Cuzzens.
The vivacious cultural scene in black Detroit resonated with African Canadians who yearned for the racial solace that one finds in a predominantly black setting. Cuzzens recalled, “That was a nice era in Detroit. Black people were in their own ghetto, but they were working to get out of it.” She considered the 1930s and 1940s a seminal moment in cultural production: “Those were eras, like the Paradise Valley era was also the Joe Louis era for us. You could…rub shoulders with Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines,” and others. Whenever these celebrities crossed the border into southwestern Ontario, Cuzzens—and later with her husband Earle—entertained them, including their close friends Joe Louis and Paul Robeson.
Border “passing” was multidirectional, of course. Gilbert St. Elmo “Gillie” Heron—the father of Gil Scott-Heron, singer of the “Revolution Will Not be Televised” and acclaimed godfather of rap music—emigrated from Jamaica in 1938 at age sixteen with his family to Cleveland, Ohio. They relocated to Detroit the following year. During World War II, Gillie, a British subject, left the United States to enlist on British soil. The twenty-one-year-old traveled to Ontario to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in summer 1943, wagering that his prodigious athleticism would secure him a coveted spot in an elite, nearly all-white fighting unit. Gillie made the cut.
In a matter of days, Gillie amazed his fellow servicemen and superiors during various track and sporting events at Camp Borden—the home base of the RCAF, roughly sixty miles north of Toronto. News coverage of intramural action called the indomitable athlete “flashy” and the “colored spark.” Before enlisting in the air force, Gillie had won many accolades dating back to his youth in Jamaica. In 1940, he became the Michigan Welterweight Golden Glove champion and had also played on five championship soccer teams. In track and field, he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.9 seconds; boasted a twenty-one feet ten inches in the broad jump; leapt five feet nine inches in the high jump. He also excelled in baseball, basketball, football, tennis, and table tennis. At East Technical High School in Cleveland, another prodigious athlete nine years his senior named Jesse Owens had already set many records before Gillie could leave his imprint on the record books.
After his discharge in June 1944, Gillie returned to Detroit as he had always intended. But industrial work did not fulfill him. His feet itched for the pitch, so he made a career in his cleats. Gillie played in the Detroit District Soccer League in 1945, netting an astonishing forty-four goals in a fourteen-game season. By 1946, the Detroit Wolverines, a professional team, signed him. In his debut match against the Chicago Vikings, Gillie disoriented the opposing defense, dazzled fans, and delivered a hat-trick. That memorable date of June 7, 1946 at legendary Comiskey Park preceded Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball by nearly one year. Ebony called Gillie the “Babe Ruth of soccer.” Without much notoriety in the mainstream white press, Gillie—the cross-border cosmopolitan of Jamaican birth, who came of age in Cleveland and Detroit, and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force north of Toronto—quietly became the first black soccer player to break that sport’s color bar.
North Americans who had a cross-border, Pan-African outlook believed that, in the northern US or Canada, they could escape racial caste. Unable to find the elusive promised land, they imagined the US-Canadian borderlands as their Pan-African, cosmopolitan zone. Migrants such as Beulah Cuzzens and Gillie Heron and many others relocated, subverted, and agitated to find, reimagine, and build a diasporic and transnational community. Their efforts connected the postwar struggle for civil rights in the United States to human rights in Canada, highlighting the ways that activists could advance similar yet distinct rights regimes in neighboring polities. With the advent of Black Power in the late 1960s and 1970s, however, US and Canadian security and intelligence services clamped down on cross-border activists whom they suspected of radicalizing black communities.
Today, the US-Mexican border, the point of entry for most migrants, has brought a global crisis to a divided nation’s doorstep. Like the early twentieth century when blacks from the Caribbean, Central America, and Canada encountered and fought Jim Crow in the United States, a resurgent white nationalism is confronting migrants on the southern border. Because the United States is a settler colonial society founded on indigenous dispossession, extensive exploitation of enslaved African labor, and mass immigration from Europe and Asia, notions of who belongs are likely to change from time to time.
Are there cross-border cosmopolitans today? If so, will they continue to reshape our understanding of race, borders, and transnational citizenship? As physical borders continue to tighten under political pressures, it seems likely that aspiring cross-border cosmopolitans will find it increasingly challenging to foster a vibrant, transnational community and identity.
—Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey, William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellow, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey is the William Lyon Mackenzie King Postdoctoral Fellow in the Canada Program at the Weatherhead Center and Lecturer in the Department of History at Harvard University. His manuscript—Cross-Border Cosmopolitans: The Making of a Pan-African North America, 1919-1992—is under contract with University of North Carolina Press.
- The Paradise Theater, Detroit, 1944. Credit: Detroit Symphony Orchestra
- Beulah Cuzzens, 1927. Credit: Smithsonian Institution
- Students from the S.S. #11 school in Ontario, 1948. Beulah Cuzzens was a teacher there. Post-Confederation, Ontario was one of only two provinces to legislate black segregated schools. Thanks to black parents and politicians, the last one in the province finally closed in 1965. Credit: Harrow Early Immigrant Research Society, accessed on May 13, 2019 from tvo.org
- Gillie Heron, The first black soccer player to break the color bar in the United States, and the first to play for Scotland’s Celtic Football Club in 1951. Credit: The Celtic Wiki, accessed on May 13, 2019