City government and some Hamiltonians are removing signs honouring a former slave

Adrienne Shadd

Those who enter the town of Dundas, Ont., only expecting signs for the local Rotary Club or commemorating the Dundas Real McCoys’ 2014 Allan Cup win got a surprise this summer.

Sometimes — on and off — there were signs commemorating Sophia Burthen (Pooley), who came to Dundas in the 1800s as a slave.

Burthen was enslaved in the households of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant and then entrepreneur and town co-founder Samuel Hatt.

The signs were the work of local artist and writer Andrew Hunter, who has posted about 75 commemorative signs for Burthen since July.

Some of the signs have basic information about Burthen, such as when she was born and died. Others are paired with quotes from James Baldwin, an American novelist and activist.

Joseph Brant

Hunter just wrote a book about Burthen, and wants to boost her profile. But he says the sign project has turned into a battle where City of Hamilton workers tear down the signs what seems like minutes after he puts them up.

“Her story is remarkable,” he said. “It’s a way more powerful story of accomplishment and survival than any of these puffed-up white folks.”

His message for the city: “I want you to think about this more deeply than it just being about policing.”

The city has few words on the removal of Hunter’s signs, except to say that they violate the sign bylaw. That bylaw dictates the appearance and location of signs in Hamilton, and can lead to a maximum $5,000 fine under the Provincial Offences Act.

As for whether the city pondering charges against Hunter, “to date, no charges have been issued,” a spokesperson said in an email. “However, violation of the city’s sign bylaw will result in charges.”

Residents seem to have tampered with them too, Hunter says. The signs have been coloured over them with marker, or torn in half and thrown on the ground.

Hunter wants to make a point about whose story is told throughout history, and who is remembered. And Burthen, he says, is worth remembering.

Burthen was born into slavery in Fishkill, N.Y., in 1772, says Hunter, whose book is called “It Was Dark There All the Time: Sophia Burthen and the Legacy of Slavery in Canada.”

When she was seven, she was taken to the Canadian border and sold to Brant. She lived near Six Nations for about 20 years before she was sold to Hatt, the co-founder of Dundas, Hunter says. She ran away in her forties and died in Peel Township in 1860.

Andrew Hunter

In 1855, American abolitionist Benjamin Drew interviewed her for the book The Refugee: or, the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada.

Her story is “unique in the annals of slavery in Canada and in the United States,” said Toronto historian Adrienne Shadd. “She provides us with a different take on this whole situation of slavery, because of the fact that she had been enslaved in Upper Canada and by a person of Mohawk background.”

Shadd, who wrote about Burthen in her own book, The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton, supports Hunter’s project.

So does the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, says Kojo Damptey, its interim executive director.

Robin McKee said the information on the signs is important, but he’d like to see a different method. A permanent plaque is proposed instead.

“I’m not opposed to the information on the plaque,” he said. “I’m opposed to someone doing it on their own on a heritage property. It’s similar to graffiti. It’s just printed up nice so you can read it.”

Hunter said he’s not convinced a permanent sign will do. Municipalities tend to point to such things as evidence of their “wokeness”, he said.

“It’s not about a plaque or museum,” he said. “It’s about a change in how the stories are told and who gets remembered.”