Unearthing Black Canadian Excellence: The Contributions of Anderson Abbott
By: William Ahiahonu
What does it mean to be a black Canadian? What essential aspects of Canadian society have black Canadians proved vital to? These are questions that often require immense critical thinking and careful reasoning. However, questions of this caliber relating to black Canadians are not always approached in this manner. In today’s society, racial prejudice and profiling towards black Canadians continue to make their presence known within the workplace, in educational institutions and other settings. It has been taken for granted the significance of black Canadians in history’s past, thus resulting in the continued lack of recognition of black Canadian potential in modern times. This is why it is important to backtrack through the depths of Canadian history as it will allow us to recognize black Canadians’ contributions to Canadian development. Looking back upon the achievements of those such as Josiah Henson, Rosemary Brown, Anderson Abbott and many others offer that opportunity. Focusing on Anderson Abbott, a personal icon of mine, his story will serve as a way to analyze black Canadian success from a specific standpoint.
Anderson Ruffin Abbott was born in 1837 to Wilson Abbot and Ellen Toyer who were both free from enslavement. His parents owned a successful store in the American city of Mobile until it was ransacked as a result of disobedience to the city’s laws that were racially demeaning in nature. They moved to New York afterwards, only to move again to Toronto, Upper Canada, as an attempt to avoid the racist atmosphere. His parents demonstrated resilience and exceptional work ethic, rebuilding their early prominence and it was upon this foundation that Anderson Abbot achieved his own passion. Abbot attended the prestigious and racially integrated Buxton Mission School within the black settlement of Eligin. With his passion to succeed and his untainted grit, Abbot obtained honour student status by 1858, when he began studies at Toronto’s school of medicine. After years of hard work, Abbot earned his position as a medical doctor after his graduation from the school, becoming the first black Canadian to do so.
Anderson Abbott’s medical expertise proved significant to the reputation of black Canadians and Canada’s reputation as a whole. He made his first significant mark in the American Civil War, serving as a civilian surgeon for the Union Army. During his time in the United States, he was also among those caring for American president Abraham Lincoln at his time of trauma. In that era, obtaining this rank as a black person was difficult. Abbot, however, proved unfazed by this reality of his time, making it possible to care for a vast variety of people.
Abbott argued passionately against racially segregated schools later on when he became president of the Wilberforce Educational Institute, a school that prepared black students for university. He constantly advocated for integration within Canada’s schools, which in turn, contributed to the resistance against racial inequality. Securing more high ranked positions such as being appointed to the Chatham Medical Society, being one of 273 civil war veterans to possess the prestigious GAR badge and being awarded one of New York’s highest ranked military honours, Abbott in his later years still proved his significance to Canada’s reputation and identity by redefining the potential for black Canadians to make an impact both in and out of Canada’s borders.
Abbott’s path to success teaches the generations of black Canadians after his time what it means to redefine what can be achieved; to redefine black potential. His strong intellect fuelled by his work ethic made him one of the most prominent figures to catalyze the Canadian progression towards advancements in medical study, reputation building and the fight to diminish racial prejudice. And the analysis can even be taken farther back to the time of his parents. Their refusal to be held down by racial-based barriers allowed them to flourish, which in turn, allowed their son to flourish as well. Anderson Abbott’s success has opened up opportunities to specialize in prestigious professions for black Canadians and, quite frankly, for all Canadians of diverse racial backgrounds. Ultimately, Abbott’s story and legacy teaches our generation that our abilities to define Canada’s identity doesn’t depend on the colour of our skin, but what we prioritize and what we consider is worth pursuing. This indeed, is a value that serves as a guide and motivation for all Canadians of diverse racial backgrounds to pursue their passions and to continue to fight towards racial neutrality in Canada.
References (MLA 8th Edition)
“Anderson Abbott.” Chatham-Kent Physician Tribute, ckphysiciantribute.ca/doctors/anderson-ruffin-abbott/. Thomas, Owen. “ABBOTT, ANDERSON RUFFIN.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Dictionary of Canadian Biography ed., vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1998, www.biographi.ca/en/bio/abbott_anderson_ruffin_14E.html. Yarhi, Eli. “Anderson Abbott.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, 27 Nov. 2013, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/anderson-abbott/.