Black History: Emancipation Day

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.

Owen Sound: a Key Destination in Black History Stories

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.

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About Owen Sound

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Black History in Owen Sound: Who was the First Black Citizen in the community is a cause for debate.

Black History: The Underground Railway is an important part not only in terms of black history, but of the history of southwestern Ontario.

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  3. Owen Sound Businesses in the 1920s were the Backbone of the Community
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