It was a warm August in 1960 as residents of the border cities of Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, Michigan, prepared to celebrate the annual Emancipation Day festival on the Canadian side of the Detroit River. The festival was established to commemorate the 1843 passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in Upper Canada, a move that freed slaves in the country and encouraged thousands of African Americans to escape slavery north. For decades, the festival had been run as a transnational event designed to celebrate this shared history among border residents. By 1960, the event had grown to several days long and included sporting events, a midway, Sunday sunrise services, a Miss Sepia pageant, and performances by top musicians.
It was the latter that sparked controversy on August 1. That evening, more than 4,500 people, many of whom were African Americans from Detroit, attended the headlining jazz show. In the middle of the performance, local papers reported, a fight broke out between African American gangs from Detroit. One man was stabbed in the chest and at least fifty others injured. Local Emancipation Day organizers were horrified by the incident, and worked hard to separate their celebration from the violence that took place. Walter L. Perry, Windsor’s “Mr. Emancipation,” accused Detroit “syndicates” of exploiting the festivities for their own personal gains and consequently giving Emancipation Celebration a bad reputation. For Perry, the fight only confirmed his fears—that Detroit criminals would reinforce negative racial stereotypes during the very festivities meant to celebrate racial equality and promote racial harmony.
In fact, Perry and the festival organizers had good reason to be worried. While the Emancipation Festival had gone largely unnoticed by international media prior to 1960, the violence that erupted that summer was reported in the press across the United States and Canada. Dubbing it the “Jazz Riot,” the American and Canadian media emphasized the fact that those involved were young black residents from the American side of the border. Seeing it as a sign of racial disharmony, rising juvenile delinquency, and a general move toward disorder in the post–World War II years, many expressed the belief that the “riot” was just another example of the unraveling of morals in the modern world. Young people in particular, in pushing for radical change to the social and racial order in the United States and Canada, many worried, were only setting the stage for more violent confrontation and disorder. If it could happen in the small, largely white Canadian city, it could happen anywhere.
If the Windsor Jazz Riot has long been lost from our collective historical memory, it provides an important moment to think about current national debates over riots, race relations, and national boundaries. Borders—be they national, geographical, social, or cultural—provide us the opportunity to blame outsiders for social ills, and for expressing collective fears. We tend to associate this most often with the U.S.–Mexico border, where inflammatory language about anchor babies, Mexican rapists, and drug smugglers dominates public debates. But there is a deep history of racial division along the U.S.–Canada divide, one that needs to be acknowledged as we debate the “American” race problem in the twenty-first century.
The Windsor Jazz Riot shows us how a sense of white racial solidarity crossed the U.S.–Canada divide, as residents and the media on both sides of the border sought to blame young black attendees (or in today’s language, “thugs“) for the violence that occurred. In the midst of renewed public debates in which the American inner city is once again seen as the site of racial antagonism, inequality, and violence, it’s important to remember the ways in which cities on the edge of the nations helped to solidify this racial narrative decades ago. We might, in fact, recognize the debates over the Windsor Jazz Riot more than we care to admit—and in doing so, perhaps could learn something about the power of simplistic racial narratives to cross multiple boundaries—even the northern borderline.