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The Freedom Project brings Motown to the Royal City

In this Following Up feature we catch up with Denise Francis from the Guelph Black Heritage Society to see how the Freedom Project renovations are going at Heritage Hall and hear about the Motown Tribute and other Black History Month celebrations

The stones in the foundation of Heritage Hall have held strong since former fugitive slaves, who arrived here with the Underground Railroad, mortared them in place 140 years ago.

The former British Methodist Episcopal Church was an important centre for the black community in Guelph who began worshipping at the site on Essex Street in 1870, 10 years before the stone church was erected. 

It was purchased by the Guelph Black Heritage Society in 2012 and they began a restoration campaign called the Freedom Project to preserve the building’s cultural and structural integrity as well as improve its energy efficiency and accessibility to the community. 

“We have been very fortunate to get grants from Canadian Heritage, The Enabling Accessibility Fund and the Ontario Trillium Foundation to embark on this project,” said Denise Francis, president and treasurer of the Guelph Black Heritage Society. “We are very grateful for their support and all the support and interest that we’ve had from the community so far.”

Construction is underway on an addition that will include a wheelchair ramp, a stairwell, accessible washrooms and a foyer. They hope to have the work completed in March despite some unexpected delays.

“With an old building you never know what to expect and we’ve had some unexpected things,” said Francis. “We are still moving forward but we have about a $100,000 shortfall that we are trying to make up so, all the proceeds from Black History Month will go towards the Freedom Project.” 

They have planned a full month of events and exhibits in February at different locations in the city.

“All but one of the events are pay what you can because we want to make them accessible to everyone,” said Francis. “The Motown Tribute is the only ticketed event we have for the month.”  

They kicked things off on Jan. 22 with the launch of their own signature beer.

“It is our fourth year of partnering with the Royal City Brewing Company,” said Francis. “They make a brew especially for us in honour of Black History Month called Lantern Ale and a portion of the proceeds from sales during the month are donated to the Black Heritage Society.”

The list of musicians on the bill for the Motown Tribute on Feb. 1 at Royal City Church, 50 Quebec Street, represents a broad swath of talent and styles.  

“It will feature 19 local performers who will be singing the best-known songs from Motown,” said Francis. “Motown introduced black music and black artists to the world and one of the reasons we chose it is that it speaks to our initiatives about social justice. Berry Gordy and his visionary status is something we truly admire.”  

Local performers include D’eve Archer, Alanna Gurr, Nicolette Hoang, Rufus John, Jenny Mitchell, Tannis Slimmon, Jessy Bell-Smith, Savannah Taylor, Transstar, Bry Webb and Steph Yates. They will be backed up by an eight-piece band that includes Guelph’s own Thomas Hammerton on keys, Nathan Lawr on drums and Brent Rowan on baritone sax. 

The list of songs includes Motown hits by legendary artists such as Dianna Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Lionel Richie and the Commodores. 

Tickets are $25 advance and $30 at the door for adults and $15 advance and $20 at the door for students. To order online visit this website.

“Coming up after that we have the International African Inventors Museum and it will be held here at Heritage Hall,” said Francis. “It is a mobile museum and it will be exhibits of inventions that were created by people of African descent.” 

The exhibit runs from Feb. 8 - 20 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. at Heritage Hall at 83 Essex St.

A block away in the Boarding House Gallery at 6 Dublin St. is a youth art show called After Shock and a mixed media art installation called In Remembrance of Me that runs from Feb 10 - 29 and includes a reception Thursday, Feb. 13 from 7 - 10 p.m.

“We are partnering with the University of Guelph College of Fine Arts and the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute,” said Francis. “Students have been doing a photo project of Heritage Hall as we’ve been doing these renovations.  Another student is doing a video project where she has interviewed us and we’ve talked about the history of the organization.”

On Saturday, Feb. 15, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. there is an exhibit of portrait artist Laurie McGraw’s work in her gallery at 28C Douglas St. 

“She did the African Princess print that is featured on all our posters this year,” said Francis. “She has also done portraits of many prominent black Canadians such as Oscar Peterson.”

The last event takes place on the last day of Black History Month Friday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. in collaboration with the Guelph Civic Museum at 52 Norfolk St.  

“It is for their Fourth Friday presentation,” said Francis. “We have two amazing young artists Sasha Henry and Aaron Ridge and they will be performing that evening.” 

For more information about Black History Month events, the Freedom Project and the Guelph Black Heritage Society visit their website.