Friday, May 15, 2009

Phil Paine finds his own memorial to genius and heroism in Toronto

He describes a rare moment:

When I first began to read seriously in history, as a boy, my instincts led me to avoid looking for heroes. Trying to find people in the past to admire and respect can be a trap. One is bound to be disappointed. The sad truth is that scoundrels and monsters routinely find their way into history books, but good people do not. The very fact that one is a decent human being virtually guarantees that one will be forgotten. Historical figures propped up as models or champions of this and that usually turn out to be outright frauds, or at the very least to have genuine accomplishments marred by major flaws. But there was one historical figure that I could not help admiring, and that was Frederick Douglass, whose Autobiography inspired me from childhood. And I did not know until recently that I could walk on the very floor where Douglass walked and spoke, right near my own home.

At the corner of King and Jarvis stands St. Lawrence Hall. This fine structure was built in 1850 to provide a venue for public meetings, concerts, balls, and other cultural events of the little city that was then maturing out of its crude frontier beginnings. Over the next century, the hall would be used to echo the voice of Jenny Lind, display the curios of P.T. Barnum, and be used as a practice dance hall by Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. The structure is well preserved, and an excellent example of the Renaissance Revival style of the mid-nineteenth century. Unlike most such structures, it has maintained its intended function throughout its existence.

The timing of its construction was propitious, for there was an important issue for public discussion: the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law in the United States. This law allowed agents from the southern slave states to conduct a reign of terror in northern states, kidnapping runaway slaves, and many free blacks, and dragging them back to the slave pens of the south. It effectively unleashed the tentacles of the monstrously evil institution of slavery throughout the United States, canceling out existing abolitionist reforms. This hideous injustice would soon lead the United States into a bloody civil war. The activities of the Underground Railway, the organized resistance movement which smuggled escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, were now much more dangerous. Upper Canada had enacted legislation for the abolition of slavery in 1793. On the issue of slavery, Canadians were consistently and adamantly on the side of the angels. The underground railway terminated in Toronto. Escaped American slaves formed free agricultural communities scattered around rural Ontario, and much of the resistance was organized here.

So it's not surprising that Frederick Douglas came to Toronto, and spoke at the newly-built St. Lawrence Hall to a cheering crowd of 1,200 on April 3, 1851[1]. Yesterday, I entered the building, and walked through the empty hall, which has not much changed in general appearance.

Since I acknowledge so few heroes from the annals of history, I rarely get that special thrill that historians can enjoy... the pleasure of planting one's feet on a spot trod by a paladin. I once stood rapt with pleasure in front of Mozart's house, listening to one of his arias being sung. But Mozart's is an example of a tragic life, transcended by genius, and can hardly serve as an example to follow. I have no transcendent genius of my own, so his example is useless to me, personally.

But the work of Frederick Douglass has long been, for me, a kind of guidebook in the quest for freedom and human dignity. The man was a genius, no doubt about it, but it was a real-world genius.

Read the whole thing.

Labels: , , , , ,

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home