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Event packs former church built by freed slaves

Black History Month kicks off locally with well-attended event at historic former church on Essex Street now known as Heritage Hall

Guelph has a significant black heritage and a diverse black community, celebrants at a Black History Month kick-off event said Saturday evening.

The broader community is beginning to take notice of and appreciate this important part of local history and culture, they said.

The historic, and tiny, Heritage Hall, the former Guelph British Methodist Episcopal Church at 83 Essex Street, was too small to comfortably hold the crowd that assembled for the month’s inaugural event, an evening of powerful poetry, music, and stories.

Aboriginal drummer and singer Jan Sherman began the evening with welcome song, and spoken word artist Truth Is performed intense, edgy poems.

About 100 people packed into the limestone structure that was built in 1880 by freed slaves that had entered Canada in previous decades through a clandestine network that came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

The church was purchased in 2011 by a group eager to preserve it, and it became the home of the new Guelph Black Heritage Society in 2012.

Adrian Strickland’s grandparents were married in the church in 1916.

“I am connected with this place, to say the least,” Strickland said, adding that the church could have been lost to demolition when it came on the market a few years ago.

“It is so good to see it being preserved,” he said. “It is preserving the past, but also opening it up to other groups to use as a multi-functional place.”

As a hub for cultural, historical and social activities the building has brought more prominence to Guelph’s black community and heritage, said Carlton Gyles, a member of the society’s board of directors, and chair of the Black History Month programming committee.

“We’re still struggling with the mortgage, but we are doing all we can to maintain it, and to put on programs that celebrate black heritage,” he said. “We always emphasize that it’s not a place for black people. It’s a place for the community, a place to celebrate diversity and achievement. We’re really pleased with the extent to which the community has supported us in our three years here.”

Black History Month, he said, is a time to reflect on the hardships that have been endured by black people, and “on the support we received from a wide range of people - black, white, and native.”

At the time the church was built, the Essex-Nottingham neighbourhood around it was home to a majority of the over 100 African-Americans that settled in the town of Guelph in the 19th century. Tens of thousands of fugitive American slaves entered Canada from the late 1790s to 1865, aided by Aboriginal Peoples and white anti-slavery activists.

Guelph’s black community is made up a significant number of people from Caribbean countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and the Bahamas, Gyles said. There is also a strong African contingent.

“We draw support from all these various countries, because black heritage has its origins in Africa,” he added. “Through slavery, black people came to the Caribbean, to America and Canada. And so, in a sense, we are all related.”

Stickland said Black Heritage Month, which has been celebrated in Canada for 20 years, has grown in prominence in Guelph in recent years. Just a few decades ago, he said, there was little acknowledgement of black heritage in Guelph, or across southern Ontario, due largely to prejudice. That has changed as information has become more readily available and more easily disseminated through the Internet.  

University of Guelph students Morgan Blackman and Obehi Okaka said information about black heritage is shared widely on campus.

“I feel that a lot of people in Guelph are willing to learn more when presented with the opportunity,” said Okaka, 18.

Black Heritage Month is a time for people of colour to connect with others in the city to forge a greater appreciation of black history and culture, said Blackman. There is much to share and much to learn, she indicated.

Events are planned for each week of the month. On Saturday, February 13 the film In the Key of Oscar about legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson will be shown at Heritage Hall, along with live jazz music by the Guelph Youth Jazz Ensemble. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., admission is free.

The following Saturday, February 20 is the third annual Music, Love and Family event, with drum and dance performances, and DJ Charles Jansen. It happens at Heritage Hall starting at 7 p.m. Admission is $10. On Friday, February 26, Tracy Cain and Lorraine Harris will perform at the Guelph Civic Museum, starting at 7 p.m. And a family-friendly drum and dance event will end the month of celebrations on Saturday, February 27 at Heritage Hall, featuring Wiijii Numgumook Kwe Singers and Jamie Andrews and Funga Drummers. It starts at 1:30 p.m. Admission is $7, or $20 for family of four.


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Rob O'Flanagan

About the Author: Rob O'Flanagan

Rob O’Flanagan has been a newspaper reporter, photojournalist and columnist for over twenty years. He has won numerous Ontario Newspaper Awards and a National Newspaper Award.
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