Black and white photo of two girls eating cotton candy while the middle girl eats a candied apple Courtesy of the E. Andrea Moore Heritage Collection

Savouring the Past

September 1, 2022

Exploring Food and Freedom with Tonya Sutherland-Stewart

In the mid-twentieth century, Windsor hosted Emancipation Day parades and celebrations that would span several days. For the 2022 Ontario Culture Days Festival, Creative in Residence Tonya Sutherland-Stewart will host ‘Savouring the Past: Exploring Food and Freedom,’ sharing research on the important role of food during these historical celebrations and offering free samples of food that would have been served. Register here for free tickets to this event.

We spoke with Tonya about the project.

Black and white image of people marching in uniforms, the person in front is holding up a flag
Courtesy of the E. Andrea Moore Heritage Collection

Ontario Culture Days: Could you describe the project that you’re working on as a Creative in Residence for ONCD’s 2022 Festival?

Tonya Sutherland-Stewart: Over the past year, I have gone through the process of conducting research to better understand the important role food played in Windsor’s Greatest Freedom Show on Earth. This has involved going through archival records, studying academic sources that discuss food history in Canada, and interviewing someone who participated in the festivities. During my ONCD event, I will be giving a talk to share how these different paths of knowledge taught led me to better understand the foods of Emancipation Day, and the impact that they had on Windsor’s community. In addition to my talk and a brief Q&A, I will invite the audience to experience some of the spirit of the celebrations by sharing a meal and enjoying musical performances together. Attendees will receive a free sample of some of the barbeque foods that would have been served at the celebrations (e.g. ribs, chicken, baked beans); they may also bring their own picnics, or purchase food from vendors that will be onsite.

A group of people in a room facing a stage. A set of drums and a person holding a trombone are on stage.
Courtesy of the E. Andrea Moore Heritage Collection

ONCD: What is the Jackson Park Project?

TSS: The Jackson Park Project is a multiplatform not-for-profit created to explore, memorialize, and celebrate the history of the Emancipation Day celebrations that took place in Windsor, Ontario. Our project focuses on the celebrations from the 1930s to the 1960s, through the development of educational resources, a digital archive, and entertainment (including a historical drama series and documentary). We aim to encourage ongoing conversations about these celebrations and their place within the larger landscape of Canadian history.

A group of women sitting down in a line on a diving board. They are all crossing their legs
Courtesy of the E. Andrea Moore Heritage Collection

ONCD: Can you share some of the history of Windsor’s Emancipation Day celebrations?

TSS: Emancipation has been celebrated in Windsor since the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect across the British Empire in 1834; however, the celebrations that took place from the 30s to the 60s were of an exceptional scale. These celebrations, which typically consisted of a week of musical performances, speeches, beauty contests, an enormous barbeque and a parade through the streets of Windsor to the Grand Stadium in Jackson Park, attracted thousands of people from across North America, and were rightfully dubbed ‘the Greatest Freedom Show on Earth.’ In addition to being a great source of fun, the Emancipation Celebrations also served as a beacon to shed light on the ongoing struggle for civil rights. At a time that was noted for much racism and division, Emancipation Week drew all ethnicities in a celebration of freedom, faith and music.

Women lined up on a stage wearing dresses
Courtesy of the E. Andrea Moore Heritage Collection

ONCD: Why is food such an important part of the celebrations?

TSS: The foods of the Greatest Freedom Show are fondly recalled by all who attended the celebrations. Treats such as barbecued ribs, chicken, and corn were a central attraction for the crowds gathered in Jackson Park. Aside from the good eating, the foods that were served during Emancipation Day represented the economic strength of Windsor’s Black community, with Black farmers supplying produce and meat, while non-Black vendors vied to participate to take advantage of the economic opportunity the massive celebrations presented.

A band of 6 people on a stage playing varied instruments
Courtesy of the E. Andrea Moore Heritage Collection-6 (1)

ONCD: What do you hope attendees will take away from your event?

TSS: I hope that people will be able to enjoy some of the elements that made the Greatest Freedom Show so special: good food, good music, and the celebration of a community and its history.

Ontario Culture Days runs an annual Creatives in Residence program. Part of the work of the Creatives is presented during public events for our festival of free arts and culture programming across Ontario. This project was presented as part of 2022 Festival.