Black History: Emancipation Day celebrates the abolition of slavery in Britain in the 1830s and the similar action taken by the United States in 1862. It continues to be an annual celebration in many locations that were in some way, or another touched by the impact of slavery.
Although the first European settlers did not arrive in the Owen Sound area until 1840, this community would soon welcome African Americans and become an important centre for those fleeing from the shackles of slavery. Owen Sound would become, in essence, known in the annals of black history research as the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad.
Although many African Americans, who sought freedom in the Canadian colonies, settled closer to the American border around Chatham and Windsor, others made their way northward into the unsettled regions of the Upper Canadian colony. They made their homes in the Priceville and Rocky Saugeen areas around the future town of Durham, before much, if any, white settlement had occurred in that region of southwestern Ontario.
When the Grey County region was opened for settlement, hundreds of settlers arrived in the area, many of them claiming land that had already been settled by the former slaves. Unfortunately, most of the African Americans did not possess written titles to their land and for that reason, and others, many of them moved further north to the area around Owen Sound.
Soon, Owen Sound had a vibrant African American community living within its boundaries and in the rural regions abutting its borders. Owen Sound historian, Melba Croft sites a September 1854 report by Reverend L. Kribs in the Congregational newspaper, the Canadian Independent, illustrating that there were indeed many former slaves living in this area:
“At Owen’s Sound there are a number of Refugees from Slavery who have escaped from the Southern States.”
It should be noted that not all of the black community in Owen Sound arrived in the community from southern Grey County. In fact, many of them traveled to this area via ships.
Isaiah Chokee arrived in Owen Sound around 1842 on the “Fly”, a small vessel owned by a local entrepreneur, W.C. Boyd. At that time, the “Fly” was the settlement of Owen Sound’s main connection to the outside world. Chokee braved the rough waters of Georgian Bay aboard the “Fly” bringing valuable supplies to sustain the citizens of the area.
Although African Americans made valuable contributions to community life in this outpost in the Upper Canadian wilderness, two men, John “Daddy” Hall and Isaiah Chokee, are the ones that have been given the most attention by historians and in black history research.
“Daddy” Hall arrived in Owen Sound form the Rocky Saugeen area north of Durham and became one of Owen Sound’s first citizens and certainly one the most well known! He worked at many jobs, but he was most famous as Owen Sound’s Town Crier.
In 1865, the African American community in Owen Sound built its own church on the west bank of the Sydenham River, a few hundred yards south of the bridge at 8th Street. In 1911, the church moved to its present-day location on 11th Street West, one block west of the harbor.
Celebrations of Emancipation Day began in Owen Sound in the 1860s. Some suggest that they may have occurred even earlier.
To this day Emancipation Day picnics are held every summer on the long weekend in August at Harrison Park. Everyone is always welcome to share in the black history and the culture of this dynamic part of Owen Sound’s community life. So, why not plan a day trip, a weekend excursion or make a visit to Owen Sound’s Emancipation Day Picnic part of your summer vacation.
A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
For more information about Owen Sound's rich black history please check out my book, Owen Sound: The Port City published by Dundurn Press.
12-year-old Walks to Owen Sound in 1851 from the journal of a teenage boy's experience travelling with his brother in the untamed Upper Canadian wilderness.
In the 1920s, Owen Sound got New Elevators. After losing the CPR elevators to fire, the community fought hard to get new elevators for their harbour and improve the community's economy.
The 1930s Were Not All Bad there were some successes in the Owen Sound area and there was one natural phenomenon, that was unusual to the region that occurred.
The 1944-1945 Grey North By-Election would surprise Prime Minister King and all of Canada as the Grey North electorate refused to be dictated to by Ottawas political elites.
The were 1950s a Decade of Change in the Owen Sound area. A local boy starred in the NHL; there was a significant industrial change; schools were standing to experience the baby boom.
1960s: Owen Sound's Education Expansion: 1960s Owen Sound was a period of growth and one result of this was a need for the expansion of education services for the growing population.
1960s Owen Sound marked a period of change and new growth to the commercial and industrial life that would impact the citizens of Owen Sound and change the patterns of doing business.
The Bible was the Law in the 1840s in this region because the region was unrepresented by the government peace and justice were community responsibilities.
Blazes! Fires were a problem in the early years in the Owen Sound area, buildings were often made of wood and firefighting equipment water sources were inadequate were.
Brooke: A brief history of an important, yet distinctly different, community that became a key element in Owen Sound's development as a important Georgian Bay port city.
Charles Rankin, I Presume: October 7, 1840 marked the meeting of Land Agent John Telfer and surveyor Charles Rankin on the banks of the Sydenham River and the founding of Owen Sound.
The cost of living in 1900 in Owen Sound may seem great, but when you take into consideration other factors, things were perhaps not all that wonderful.
The CPR Grain Elevator Fire of 1911 spelled the end of Owen Sound's role as the eastern terminus of the CPR Great Lakes Fleet.
Black History: Emancipation Day celebrates the abolition of slavery and it continues to be an annual celebration in many locations that were in some way, or another touched by the impact of slavery.
Black History of Owen Sound: Version 2: There is some debate about the first black citizen in the Owen Sound area. Here is more information for your consideration.
A Curvy Route to Toronto provided a rail connection between Owen Sound and Toronto, the curvy part was thrilling, but beautiful for the passengers and strenuous for the crew.
Billy Bishop: Owen Sound Hero earned national and international fame as a World War One Fighter pilot and used his high profile to aid in the World War Two effort.
John Harrison - A Tough Owen Sound Pioneer whose grit and determination created a prosperous life for himself and his family in a new community.
William Harrison, The Source of John Harrison's Grit: details the influence of John's father, William Harrison, on John and his siblings.
John Muir, the legendary naturalist, who promoted the idea of protected nature spaces, spent time in Ontario and I went to help find evidence of his stay in the Owen Sound area.
Black Clawson Kennedy: An Iconic Owen Sound Industry provided income for area residents and economic development for the community for almost 150 years.
Amalgamation In and Around Owen Sound is not an unusual happening. Some form of boundary changes have occurred at many different times over the years.
Canada' First Pharmacy Chain Store: The Owen Sound-based drug store chain of Parker and Cattle is credited with being the first pharmacy chain store enterprise in Canada.
DC Taylor: Owen Sound Entrepreneur was not only progressive businessman, he was also an important contributor to the social and cultural fabric of his community.
Jimmy Grant was a high wire walker who was a fearless athlete who faced all challenges without a worry of the possible fatal consequences of his daredevil actions.
Newspapers hold a special place in the history of any community, and the Owen Sound Sun Times, and its predecessors, beginning with the Comet, are no exception.
Owen Sound Businesses: 1920s were owned and operated by families whose deep roots in the community and their efforts had created the backbone of the community and brought success to the port city.
Owen Sound's centennial celebrations in 1957 brought the community together for events such big name entertainers, sports competitions, street dances and much more in honour of the community's past and projecting the city's bright future.
Owen Sound: Dry Gulch Canada Learn the reason why Owen Sound was the last city in the grasp of the temperance movement.
First Cars in Owen Sound could be purchased for less than $500.00!
The harbour history of Owen Sound is rich with detail of businesses which were located at various wharves.
Owen Sound's lacrosse tradition is steeped with great teams and players who deserve more attention than history has given it.
The Owen Sound Library has been the focal point of life in the Owen Sound region for many decades, as a treasure trove of entertaining and educational materials.
Owen Sound's Police Force - The Big Four were legendary in their maintaining the peace efforts in a rowdy Great Lakes port in the early 1900s.
Hillcrest School Memories a look back at my public school days when Owen Sound's Hillcrest Public School celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998.
News of War: The 1940s was supposed to provide the world with a respite after the hardship of the 1930s depression. However World War Two brought more adversity.
Owen Sound 1840 Onward! From a clearing in the Georgian Bay wilderness to a booming port city the 1800s were a time of growth and prosperity.
Owen Sound's First Newspaper: The Comet came into existence a mere 10 years after the first settlers braved the wilderness that would become the Grey and Bruce region.
Owen Sound's First Town Council was created to develop the necessary infrastructure for a pioneer community to grow and prosper.
Owen Sound Tavern Bylaw (1857) tried to tackle the issue of monitoring taverns in the Upper Canadian pioneer wilderness.
Owen Sound's 1857 Bylaw: Dog Control illustrated how a pioneer town controlled dogs in the community, sometimes even using harsh measures.
Owen Sound CPR Strike in 1908 immobilized harbour activities in that important Georgian Bay port, the CPR's eastern Great Lakes terminus.
Owen Sound CPR Link began with a bang, suffered a setback, and ended with a whimper.
Owen Sound Entrepreneurs: S.J. Parker & Richard Notter used their wealth and their friendships to built many community-oriented businesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Owen Sound 1920 Stories provide an interesting look at the community as it was about to become a city.
Owen Sound 1920s: Optimism abounded in the port city as a new decade began, The town was becoming a city and the economic outlook seemed bright.
Owen Sound Hospital History is one of a community coming together to take care of the medical needs of the entire community.
Owen Sound Softball and Baseball has a Long Tradition From the 1980s Clippers and the Wawanekas to the 1990s Selects, Owen Sound has a been well-represented in these sports.
Owen Sound Stories: On the Attack! Throughout the history of the community, citizens were not afraid to go on the attack to promote the needs of their town.
Owen Sound Street Names honour the individuals who made a contribution to Owen Sound's development. Today the streets are numbered to help visitors find their way.
O.S.C.V.I.: the History of an Owen Sound High School details from the very beginning the establishment of a high school in the community.
Pioneer Story of a Child in 1846 Owen Sound details life in the last wilderness in Upper Canada in the 1840s.
Pioneer Story of a Child in 1846 (Part 2) continues the memories of Elizabeth Byth as she encountered life in the Upper Canada wilderness that became Owen Sound.
Pioneer Theatre was a big hit in Owen Sound and across southern Ontario, where Vaudevillians like Perth Ontario's Marx Brothers played to full houses.
U.S. President Taft Visited Owen Sound Ontario, a Georgian Bay port in a momentous winter of events in 1920 as Owen Sound celebrated its incorporation as a city.
Ship arrivals meant full shelves in stores and larders as pioneers and shopkeepers eagerly awaited goods to fill their depleted necessities
Some Interesting 20th Century Events in Owen Sound: One, in particular featured a mayor acting to avert a major labour-related confrontation.
Sunday Work Laws in the 19th Century in Owen Sound and Grey County region were very strict, with no exceptions allowed.
The 1940's: An Eventful Decade in Owen Sound and Grey County: A war; a surprising political event; sports celebrations and much more.
Wawanekas: Fastball pioneers who were a legendary women's fastball team from Owen Sound who dominated their sport for a decade or more.
Political Corruption in 1852 Owen Sound? Does it seem possible that this could happen in a pioneer community on the Georgian Bay shores? Read on, and decide.
Emily Pankhurst Visits Owen Sound. The well-known suffragette visited Owen Sound and spoke not only about suffrage, but the bolshevik threat.
Owen Sound Church History: First United Church was in fact the very first church in the Owen Sound community. It was preceded only Rev Neelands a circuit rider.
Lacrosse History in Owen Sound begins in the late nineteenth century and records the numerous championships that have been captured by Owen Sound teams.
Pioneer Ingenuity: Building Lime Kilns was essential for pioneers as without lime they could not build their brick homes.
Boosterism in 1890s Owen Sound targeted promoting economic development in Owen Sound. The port city showcased what it had to offer investors and visitors alike.
A pioneer home was very utilitarian. It served the pioneer family's essential needs, while the work of clearing the land and planting crops took priority.
Pioneer justice might be described as ruthless. But the question remains, did they always get the right man?
CPR Grain Elevator Fire in 1911 in Owen Sound harbour would have a profound impact on that Georgian Bay community.
Reverend Ryerson Visits Owen Sound and despite a great reception from the citizens of the community, he posts a negative newspaper story of the community.
The Leith Golf Course has provided many families with great memories. The history of this golf course starts, and ends, with the generosity of one family
Fenians: A Threat: The threat of an attack by Fenians was very real in Upper Canada in the 1860s and this was especially true in port communities like Owen Sound.
Inglis Falls is not only a beautiful place to enjoy nature, it is also the home of one of Owen Sound's first industries.
An Owen Sound pioneer, A.M. Stephens provided us with a story about his early years helping to carve out a community in this part of Georgian Bay.
Pioneer industry: William Kennedy William Kennedy's efforts to build an important foundry and machine shop on the banks of Owen Sound's harbour.
Pioneer Resort: King's Royal Park From 1840 meeting to opulent pioneer resort, the citizens of Owen Sound have always worked hard to promote the economic growth and development of their community, and their part of the Georgian Bay shoreline.
Sailing stories: Owen Sound Shipbuilding from the earliest time of settlement busy shipyards dotted the Owen Sound bay where shipbuilding took place, sometimes at a feverish pace.
Spanish Flu Impacted Owen Sound, Ontario causing illness and death throughout the region. But it also illustrated the strength of the community spirit in the area.
The summer of 1844 was definitely not a picnic for the early settlers in the Georgian Bay region around pioneer settlement that would become Owen Sound.
Golf Course Review: Stone Tree Golfing at the Stone Tree Golf Club, a golfer can also enjoy sighting American Goldfinches, Purple Martins and the majestic Blue Heron while they pursue their quest to improve their golf game!
Owen Sound Ontario: A Unique Perspective: Book provides a unique and humorous perspective about this Georgian Bay port and hockey hotbed.
Water Quality in Owen Sound has been an issue since the 1840s, two Owen Sound entrepreneurs in the 1870s attempted to rectify the situation.
Owen Sound, located on beautiful Georgian Bay offers a wide variety of entertainment and shopping delights for visitors of all ages. The city and its surrounding area has a rich history, parks and other natural areas for bird watchers, hikers, cross country skiers, etc.