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P.E.I.’s lesser-known slavery past comes to light at Eptek Centre

Author and historian Jim Hornby displays an old tobacco card that shows George Godfrey, from Charlottetown, fight a boxing round against Joe Lannon, in Boston, April 28, 1886. Godfrey defeated Lannon. His winnings totalled $4,000.
Author and historian Jim Hornby displays an old tobacco card that shows George Godfrey, from Charlottetown, fight a boxing round against Joe Lannon, in Boston, April 28, 1886. Godfrey defeated Lannon. His winnings totalled $4,000. - Desiree Anstey

SUMMERSIDE

There’s little visible trace of P.E.I.’s dark past, and what remains has been mostly ignored up until now.

Murder, mayhem and slavery lay buried under buildings in the west end of Charlottetown, which was once known as the “bog.”

“Our population is getting more diverse, so it’s a very different place that we live in now,” said Jim Hornby, who has researched and written a book on the topic.

“I have been on the board of directors for the Association of Newcomers to P.E.I. for 12 years, and I have seen a lot of the new arrivals and ethnic groups.

“I hope our legacy of being welcoming to those with different ethnic backgrounds has helped to relieve some of the things we didn’t do too well in the past.

“Truth and acknowledgement is always healthier for society, as well as individuals.”

His Island Black History Month talk vibrated like a chord to the captivated audience in the main hall of Summerside’s Eptek Art and Culture Centre on Sunday afternoon.

Hornby has done a lot of his own spadework to dig up some areas of the province that have been lost with time.

In the first decade of the 19th century the province had real slaves.

“Loyalists are the main people who brought the slaves,” explained Hornby. “Followed closely by the French.”

Slaves were viewed as a reliable source of labour.

“And those that were cast aside from their former owners were left to fend for themselves in this strange new land, with harsh penalties for disobeying the law,” he said.

Hornby has a map of Charlottetown drawn in 1867. It depicts where these slaves began living. It’s a marshy, poor, portion of the west end of the city, although there is no trace of it today.

Back then public hangings and thrashing, regardless of the weather, were used as warning to wade off (often petty) crimes in the area.

But one man rose from the ashes.

“George Godfrey was the son of William, his mother was Sarah Byers. His father, William, crops up a lot through drunk and disorderly sort of convictions and police reports,” said Hornby.

“In 1870, Sarah hit William’s stepmother on the back of her head with a brick and she died a week later. Due to the lack of ability to prove Sarah killed her, she was acquitted of murder and the family moved shortly after to Boston.

“George was 18 years old at the time. In Boston he got into prize fighting and became famous for his sporting achievements. Even John L. Sullivan, a very respected boxer, refused to fight George.

“He’s a great representation of the bog.”

‘Black Islanders’ was published in 1991, and Hornby plans to soon release a second edition that will feature the poster of George Godfrey on the front cover.

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