It was billed as the Greatest Freedom Show on Earth and that was no hyperbole.
From its inception in 1932 until the mid 1960s, Windsor’s Emancipation Day celebration rivalled any festival on the globe. The population of Windsor would double as people from as far south as Alabama and Mississippi would flock to the city for what had grown into a four-day festival.
Blacks, whites, and people of all nationalities would line up five deep along Ouellette Avenue to watch the marching bands from big American schools parade by. A midway that included a full-sized Ferris wheel would rise seemingly overnight in Jackson Park. The aroma of barbecue wafting through the summer air led visitors to the centre of the action.
Martin Luther King Jr. attended when he was 27. United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt came, too. Concerts by Motown legends like Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, and the Temptations would pack the grandstands.
“It was great,” said Ron Jones (BA 2018), a former Windsor city councillor. “It was the party nobody wanted to miss.”
Emancipation Day, celebrated in Canada on Aug. 1, commemorates the Slavery Abolition Act which came into force across the British Empire in 1834. In the United States, it’s celebrated on June 19, marking the date in 1865 when Union Army general Gordon Granger proclaimed the end of slavery in Texas. Be it Juneteenth — as it’s called in the U.S. — or Emancipation Day in Canada, Windsor’s celebration was the biggest and best anywhere in North America, historians agree.
Jones, who can now share Emancipation Day celebration memories with his great-grandchildren, remembers saving up to buy new clothes for the festival as a teenager. One year, it was a new shirt to wear with his Bermuda shorts. “It was pink with black flecks,” he said with a laugh. Dressed to impress, his buddies bought the same style in lime green and baby blue. “We were as colourful as Christmas trees — pastel Christmas trees.”
Jones said a festival highlight — especially for teenage boys — was the Miss Sepia beauty pageant. The event would leave him lovestruck for weeks afterwards. For decades, the crown went to young women from the United States, Jones recalled.
“I remember the first Canadian Miss Sepia — Joan Hurst from Amherstburg. When her name was called, the place went crazy,” he said.
The year was 1961.
Miss Sepia was the first beauty pageant ever held for Black women. It’s another thing that set Windsor’s Emancipation Day festival apart.
Marium Tolson-Murtty, UWindsor’s strategic planning officer on anti-Black racism initiatives, was a Miss Sepia contestant in the early 1990s. The pageant is how she met renowned children’s author Christopher Paul Curtis, whose affiliation with the festival was to help the participants write the speeches delivered as part of the competition.
Tolson-Murtty is too young to remember the festival at its peak. She experienced a different, scaled-down version. But she grew up hearing about its glory days from her parents and older relatives. She also heard about the events that led to its gradual demise.
A suspicious fire in 1957 destroyed the grandstand that was the festival’s centrepiece. “For Black people in the city of Windsor, it was like a personal attack,” Tolson-Murtty said.
Retired Windsor teacher Nancy Allen (BA 1979) remembers driving through thick smoke on her way out of town that day. She had just finished Grade 8 and her cousin, Willie Perry, was taking her to Jersey City as a graduation gift to spend time with his sister, Ruth. They stopped in Buffalo, N.Y. for the night and the fire was on the evening news there. When she got home, Allen visited Jackson Park to see the remains of what had been the heart of the festival.
Despite the act of sabotage, the festival persevered. But more blows were to come.
At the insistence of the local police commission, city officials cancelled the festival in 1967 and 1968 due to the Detroit Riots.
But Allen insists the idea to cancel the festival was hatched long before. In 1966, she had attended a dance at the Windsor Arena. The organizers weren’t affiliated with the Emancipation Day festival, but they used the word emancipation in their banners.
“There was a stabbing,” Allen said. “After that the city got nervous.”
Another seminal event around the same time also sealed the festival’s fate. It was the 1967 death of Walter Perry, the festival’s founder and champion.
Perry was known as Uncle Walt to Allen and other children living in the McDougall Street corridor, the heart of Black culture in the city at the time. Perry was the president of the British-American Association of Coloured Brothers, a group whose sole function was to stage the Emancipation Day festivities.
Perry had worked as a newspaper salesman and a cab driver and he dabbled in real estate. Legend has it he was both a rum runner and a police informant during the days of Prohibition.
He has been described as a networking genius who always knew who to call and how to get things done.
“When Uncle Walt died, we didn’t have an advocate anymore,” said Allen. The city had already founded the Freedom Festival, so the Emancipation Day celebrations never got the same attention again, she said.
Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the 1956 Emancipation Day celebration. From left: Russel Small, King, Theodore Boone, and Walter Perry.
The festival continued under the leadership of Ted Powell, but it was never as grand.
Allen’s memories of the festival in its heyday are like vignettes. Her earliest are of an elderly woman from Ohio coming to Windsor on the tunnel bus with her well-used aluminum kettle. Uncle Walt would bring the woman to the Allens’ yard in the 800 block of McDougall Street where she would build a fire and barbecue chickens to sell at Jackson Park. Like many Black people unable to find permanent employment in those days, the woman would have made enough money over that one weekend to support herself for the entire year.
Allen remembers the marching bands and precision drill teams — her favourite part of the festival. Her mother would allow her and her three sisters to follow the parade and walk by themselves to Jackson Park. She remembers walking under the arches spanning the park entrance, the gold paint glistening in the sun.
Allen’s nephew, Preston Chase, made a documentary called, “Mr. Emancipation: The Walter Perry Story,” which has been shown in film festivals across the United States, in Canada, and South Africa, winning numerous awards. Based on 20 years of research, the film is Chase’s “love letter to the community.”
Now a high school teacher in Ottawa, Chase grew up in Windsor hearing of the Emancipation festivals of his parents’ youth. “Our elders are dying and I needed to make sure this history was documented.”
He wanted to pay homage to Uncle Walt, a visionary who was an important part of Black history in Windsor and, through his festival, across North America.
Chase learned Perry had been offered 25 honorary doctorates in his lifetime. He turned them all down. His brother was a dentist and Walter Perry didn’t want there to be two Dr. Perrys, detracting from his brother’s accomplishments, Chase said.
Attracting so many visitors, the Emancipation festival was an economic windfall for the city. More importantly, said Chase, the festival provided jobs for Black youth who, because of the colour of their skin, couldn’t get hired anywhere else in the city.
There was “latent and blatant” racism in Windsor at the time, he said, but during the festival, it was set aside.
“That was the thing about it. It brought the races together,” Chase said. “That weekend, everyone forgot about their differences.”
To learn more about Emancipation Day, check out the book “Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada” by historian Natasha L. Henry, available from the Leddy Library online or through contactless pickup.