Black History in Grey and Simcoe Counties

During the 19th century, thousands of enslaved and free Black Americans risked the dangerous journey to Upper Canada (now Ontario) to escape the atrocities of slavery along a network of secret routes and safe houses. Brave guides (conductors) directed freedom seekers (passengers) to their destination (station) along what became known as the Underground Railroad. 

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 headhunters kidnapping 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. 

For up-to-date information and details on Black History in Grey and Simcoe Counties, we recommend you visit their website. For information about other places of interest to explore nearby, keep scrolling to see what Destination Ontario recommends. 

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More about Black History in Grey and Simcoe Counties

Take in Owen Sound’s City Historic Walking Tour to discover historic plaques and buildings that recognize Black settlements and contributions like Molock House, which was a home built by a former slave. Owen Sound’s Harrison Park is the site of the Emancipation Festival, which celebrates the abolition of slavery place annually in the summer. There are several other community events that recognize Black History in conjunction with the Emancipation Festival. These bring people together for theatrical performances, lectures and an Emancipation Picnic. 

The Black History Cairn in Harrison Park pays homage to slaves seeking freedom. 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 to 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 traveling to freedom. For example, 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 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 and the cultural museum’s 11 acre 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 and 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. 

Last updated: January 4, 2022

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