Family Secrets: Crossing the Colour Line

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Dundurn, Feb 20, 2003 - Biography & Autobiography - 264 pages

Catherine Slaney grew into womanhood unaware of her celebrated Black ancestors. An unanticipated meeting was to change her life. Her great-grandfather was Dr. Anderson Abbott, the first Canadian-born Black to graduate from medical school in Toronto in 1861. In Family Secrets Catherine Slaney narrates her journey along the trail of her family tree, back through the era of slavery and the plight of fugitive slaves, the Civil War, the Elgin settlement near Chatham, Ontario, and the Chicago years.

Why did some of her family identify with the Black Community while others did not? What role did "passing" play? Personal anecdotes and excerpts from archival Abbott family papers enliven the historical context of this compelling account of a family dealing with an unknown past. A welcome addition to African-Canadian history, this moving and uplifting story demonstrates that understanding one’s identity requires first the embracing of the past.

"When Catherine Slaney first consulted me, her intention was to research the life of her distinguished ancestor Anderson R. Abbott. After she told me her story of the discovery of her African heritage and the search for her roots, I urged her to make that the subject of her book. Cathy has served both of these objectives, giving us an intricate and fascinating account of her quest for her own lost identity through the gradual illumination of Dr. Abbott and his legacy for modern Canadians. Family Secrets carries an important message about the issue of ’race’ as a historical artifact and as a factor in the lives of real people."

– James W. St. G. Walker, University of Waterloo

"This is a welcome addition to the growing collection of African-Canadian materials that connects an unknown past to a promising future. That Slaney was unaware of her Black ancestry, despite that heritage being so rich and powerful, speaks to the dilemma of Black history research – it is there but requires considerable digging to uncover."

– Rosemary Sadlier, President, Ontario Black History Society


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1 On a Quest
2 In the Beginning
3 The Canadian Alternative
4 Early Black Churches in Toronto
5 The Elgin Settlement
6 Back in Toronto
7 Off to War
An AfricanCanadian Perspective
18 The Separation Begins
19 Fade to Black
20 Crossing the Colour Line
21 The Passing Years
22 Locating Myself on the Colour Line
23 The Reunification
24 My Reconciliation

8 Dr Abbott and the Civil War
9 The Grand Army of the Republic
10 Early Medical Practice in the Nineteenth Century
11 Settling Down
12 The Country Life
13 EducationSeparate But Equal?
14 The Political Arena
15 The Dundas Years
16 The Chicago Years
Family Trees
Last Will and Testament of Wilson Ruffin AbbottNov 21 1876
Civil War Memoirs from Dr Anderson Abbott
On William Peyton Hubbard
About the Author

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About the author (2003)

Catherine Slaney was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1951 to "white" parents. She presently lives in Georgetown, Ontario, with her family and, so far, has been blessed with five children and ten grandchildren. Her life is very full as she has been a full-time professor at Sheridan College for twenty-five years, teaching in the field of Animal Science and Ethics and, in her spare time, judging horse shows and grooming dogs.

Catherine developed an interest in Black history quite by accident when, in 1990, she decided to investigate a little family genealogy and came across the stories of her black ancestors. Her curiosity led her across the continent as she contacted distant cousins in an effort to seek the truth, for it quickly became apparent that certain family secrets had slipped out of reach. It became a personal quest for her to find a means to explain why some of her ancestors found it necessary pass as white.

Today she is able to share the many experiences of a very special family that now includes all shades of colour and yet are all related in blood. Although they are scattered across North America, they appear to retain some indefinable quality that connects them as family and thus their initial reunion became the first step in breaking down the barriers and revealing the family secrets.

Currently Catherine is pursuing a Doctorate Degree in Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Educational Studies at the University of Toronto (OISE/UT), where her current study focuses on racial/cultural identity, assimilation and the practice of passing.

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