Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Daily fall forecasts and weather facts from Cindy Day
IN DEPTH: Covering a contentious lobster fishery
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
What you need to know about COVID-19: October 28, 2020
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
In 1954, African American civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune walked into Windsor’s Prince Edward Hotel. She was denied a room.
McLeod Bethune was speaking the next day at Windsor’s annual Emancipation Day celebration along with then U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was offered a room in the hotel. She declined the offer and both women opted to stay in Detroit for the night.
“That will be shocking to our sensibilities as Canadians because we would think that story would work the other way,” Jay Pitter said before speaking to a virtual audience Tuesday evening through a University of Windsor lecture on Zoom.
“Windsor has a proud history of (helping enslaved African Americans fleeing from the United States via the Underground Railroad) — and it should be proud of this,” said Pitter, whose presentation was entitled The City’s Broken Promise — Confronting anti-Black racism across Canadian urban landscapes.
“It is also true, Windsor also participated in segregation as well.”
Pitter is a Toronto-based author and award-winning placemaker — a person who leads the design, planning and programming of public spaces. Her academic background and research is focused on urban design and social justice, something she said is unusual within land-use planning or development.
“Urban planning or land use tends to focus on form or function — buildings, infrastructure — and rarely on social issues such as gender or race,” Pitter said.
“We often have conversations about race and class without having those conversations within the context of place. And place is very important for understanding those issues.”
Pitter said racism has played an integral role in land use and the design of urban centres, heralding back in history to public auction sites where enslaved people were sold.
“We would see people bought, sold and beaten and sexually violated at auction block sites,” she said, stressing that “the where (or place) of the injustice is as egregious as the injustice itself.”
“The auction block is Black people’s first introduction to the public realm (across Canadian cities). That is a very violent and precarious beginning or introduction to public life and public space.”
Pitter said society has “underestimated the impact of normalizing the sale and the beating and the sexual violation of Black bodies just in everyday life, out in the open,” attributing this to Black people often feeling a lack of belonging or a sense of heightened vigilance when out in public.
“And non-Black people often suspect Black bodies, Black people in public and that is due to hundreds of years of conditioning.”
That history also led to laws and bylaws to govern Black people’s movements and enjoyment in the public realm, she said.
For example, anti-vagrancy laws that were established “to keep people in their place and to maintain social hierarchies,” and today give “police far too much power to approach, harass and sometimes sadly execute people on the street who they deem to be out of place.”
Pitter said racist housing covenants prevented Blacks, Jews and Indigenous people from living or owning property in some areas, creating segregated neighbourhoods across Canadian cities.
She hopes that by raising awareness around these issues, local leaders and politicians will reassess the ways in which they conduct public consultation and regular citizens will take action for change.
“I’m hoping everyday folks will use the information and feel embolden to get involved in the processes around land use and placemaking — everything from formal land use processes to being a really good neighbour.”
Jay Pitter will lead a workshop on The City’s Broken Promise, from 2 to 4:30 p.m., on Sept. 30. The workshop is open to Windsor-based Black community builders and their allies/accomplices interested in learning equity-based placemaking principles and strategies for engaging with the municipality. More information and registration for the workshop is available on the Centre for Cities website .
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020