Black History in Grey and Simcoe Counties
The story of the Underground Railroad and its legacy in Ontario is one of the most important chapters in Canadian history. Black settlements and communities were established throughout Southern Ontario, in and around Windsor, Amherstburg and Chatham-Kent.
But less commonly known is that many newcomers continued much farther north to the Owen Sound and Collingwood area in search of a better living, to escape racism and to put a healthy distance between them and unscrupulous bounty hunters who kidnapped free people along the American border. Located where the Pottawatomi and Sydenham Rivers meet at an inlet of Georgian Bay, Owen Sound is the largest community in Grey County. And just west along the Georgian Bay shore, the town of Collingwood is located in Simcoe County.
Explore museums, heritage sites and historical buildings that tell this story and reveal the indelible resilience of brave men and women, proudly showcased by their descendants today.
Significant Black History Sites and Events
Take in Owen Sound’s City Historic Walking Tour to discover historic plaques and buildings that recognize Black settlements and contributions. One of the stops is Molock House, a home built by Francis Ebenezer Molock, who escaped slavery in Maryland. Owen Sound’s Harrison Park is the annual summer site of the Emancipation Festival, which celebrates the abolition of slavery. There are several other community events that recognize Black History in conjunction with the Emancipation Festival. These bring people together for theatrical performances, stories and lectures and the Emancipation Day picnic.
The Black History Cairn in Harrison Park pays homage to freedom seekers. Every item used to build the monument was carefully considered for its symbolic meaning or connection to the Underground Railroad. For example, the frame of the window on the monument is fashioned like the window of a church. Churches were instrumental in supporting and hiding freedom seekers. The nine quilt squares of the flooring represent coded messages about travelling to freedom. A quilt square that featured a star pattern meant to follow the North Star to Canada, and the crossroads pattern on the quilt was a warning sign that danger was nearby.
An hour’s drive east, stop in at the Sheffield Park Black History & Cultural Museum in Thornbury, just outside of Collingwood. What began as a passion project for Howard Sheffield to honour the memory of his ancestors has blossomed into a key historical archive and cultural museum.
Howard Sheffield’s modest collection of family heirlooms and Black pioneer history grew over the years as members of the community donated their ancestral artifacts, including vintage dolls, Underground Railroad quilts and abandoned shackles. His nieces Sylvia and Carolynn Wilson stepped in to help organize the artifacts, and as the collection grew, they eventually moved the displays and exhibits to the cultural museum’s 4.45 hectare (11 acres) property that has become its permanent home today. After Mr. Sheffield’s death, the Wilson sisters continued as co-directors of the museum and are very active community leaders.
A picnic area on the property is available to sit for a snack and to enjoy the beautiful natural setting. Follow the Heritage Walk to different buildings that focus on different eras of Black History from the slavery era to present day. Have a chat with the sisters about new discoveries in the cultural museum. As seventh-generation Canadians, they have a lot to share about the struggles, sacrifices, ultimate successes and great significance of their ancestors.
The Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church in Simcoe County is another historical site worth visiting, as it was one of the earliest churches built by descendants of Black soldiers from the 1812 War.
Learn more about the Black History in this region at Grey Roots Museum and Archives in Owen Sound and from the Simcoe County Archives.
Last updated: August 16, 2022