Author and scholar Dann Broyld believes that before the Civil War, Blacks in Rochester had a transnational identity. They strategically positioned themselves by the U.S.-Canada border to be closer to migration and interaction.
“My perspective and narrative on Rochester is neither uniquely an American story nor separately Canadian, but it unites the nations and people together comprehensively,” Broyld says. “It also involves abolitionists not popularly known, the Underground Railroad, and the cutting-edge concept of Afrofuturism.”
Broyld will be in Rochester on Aug. 10 to discuss his book, “Borderland Blacks: Two Cities in the Niagara Region During the Final Decades of Slavery,” about the roles that Rochester and St. Catharines, Ont., played as the last stops on the Niagara branch of the Underground Railroad.
These cities, which had a progressive stance on issues including the abolition of slavery and women’s rights, were where many a fugitive slave sought refuge. Broyld says Blacks in Rochester and St. Catharines celebrated together, shared newspapers and built ties.
“I want people to know in this community the reasons why Blacks chose to live in Rochester was not happenstance, but it was strategic,” Broyld says. “Its location to British Canada made it perfect for runaways from enslavement.”
A Rochester native, Broyld is an associate professor of African-American history at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The American-Canadian borderlands, issues of Black identity, migration and transnational relations are some of his areas of expertise.
Broyld grew up in the 19th Ward and is a graduate of Gates Chili High School. His talk next week, “An Unforgettable Evening with Dann Broyld,” is presented by the Lower Falls Foundation. The free event will begin at Kodak Center on West Ridge Road at 5 p.m.
The Lower Falls Foundation is accepting donations to help further its work as an advocate for revitalizing the neighborhoods near the Genesee River’s Lower Falls, officials say.
In light of his visit, the Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Broyld. His answers are below.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What message do you hope to convey in your talk on Aug. 10?
DANN BROYLD: The message I want to assert, in my lecture for the Lower Falls Foundation, is that Black inhabitants of Rochester before the Civil War possessed a transnational identity and they strategically positioned themselves near the American-Canadian partition where immigration, movement, and interaction occurred. My perspective and narrative on Rochester is neither uniquely an American story nor separately Canadian, but it unites the nations and people together comprehensively. It also involves abolitionists not popularly known, the Underground Railroad, and the cutting-edge concept of Afrofuturism. Hopefully, the audience will leave understanding that Blacks in Rochester had concrete connections with their counterparts in British Canada and that they were constantly negotiating the overlapping worlds of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and the African Diaspora.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you think the communities discussed in your book know enough about the roles they played in the Underground Railroad, of the transnational identities of Blacks at that time? If yes, how did that come about? If no, why do you think that is?
BROYLD: The legacy of the Underground Railroad is certainly known in Rochester. However, the history of Blacks employing the network to greater freedom just needs to be amplified so that all grasp the depth and the intricate details of how profound a role the city played. For instance, people know about Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass, but I also want them to know the names of individuals like: Asa Dunbar, Julia Wilbur, Melinda Jones, Rev. Thomas James, John S. Jacobs, and Shields “Emperor” Green.
I want people to know in this community the reasons why Blacks chose to live in Rochester was not happenstance, but it was strategic. Its location to British Canada made it perfect for runaways from enslavement. They could remain in the United States in the borderlands of Canada, or they could enter British territory where slavery was abolished by way of the Imperial Act on Aug. 1, 1834. The other key point that made Rochester dynamic to Blacks was the transportation means in the area such as the Erie Canal, the New York Central Railroad, steamships traveling Lake Ontario to the Queen’s soil, and two suspension bridges in the Niagara River zone, which made the “Flower City” ideal for escape to another political dimension, and for American-Canadian cross-pollination.
ROCHESTER BEACON: As your book notes, historians have treated/discussed the Underground Railroad as a one-way flow, when it wasn’t. What did you learn about the fluid nature of the situation on the ground?
BROYLD: Rochester is located at an important intersection of transnational and international interaction both historically and right now. Unfortunately, historians have not always written history in this global manner. They have tended to be national and regional in orientation and unable to grasp the necessity of crossing the border into the histories of Canada and England to frame an accurate picture of Rochester.
One of the greatest attributes of the “Image City” is its proximity to Canada. It allows inhabitants to not be entangled by the trappings of nationalism and to exist nearby a nation that does things entirely different than the United States does, for example—health care, education, and politics. Being located in the borderlands, and not in the interior of America, provides to Rochesterians an opportunity to encounter different ideas, people, and perspectives than our national counterparts, who are further away from the border, and simply underexposed to all it provides.
ROCHESTER BEACON: In your view, as a scholar, how can history best inform communities like Rochester as we grapple with systemic racism and resulting inequities?
BROYLD: History is not merely events that occurred in the past, but it is a record that guides the future. Unfortunately, history is as present as it is past. History stands with us today. Now, it is our opportunity to intervene, to be actors and agents, to undo the historical wrongs of systemic racism and the resulting inequalities that are ever present. We have to have history that is as harsh as the truth, and usable to create a world, at this point, only imagined. A world with less borders and more openness. Power-holders have set the political, national, and societal lines to gain sovereignty over given territories and the people within those areas; we have to emerge to reshape the borders in ways not intended or anticipated.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].