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Artists, descendants pay tribute to Underground Railroad

by Chris Daponte

GLEN ALLAN - When Virginia Adamson first visited Mapleton Township in 2008, she was overwhelmed by “a strong sense of pride and the feeling of coming home.”

She is a descendant of black slaves who, with the help of abolitionists, escaped the southern United States through the Underground Railroad and settled in former Peel Town­ship between 1820 and 1867.

“They were proud and industrious black pioneers who persevered through hardships,” Adamson said on Aug. 7.

She was one of several speakers at the second annual Underground Railroad Music Festival, which attracted over 200 people to Glen Allan park last weekend.

Renowned blues singer Diana Braithwaite, who organized the event, said she was pleased with the turnout.

“I’m really happy about it,” she said. “People are so enthusiastic.”

The event was somewhat of a family affair for Braithwaite, herself a direct descendant of escaped slaves. The guest of honour was her mother, 88-year-old Rella Braithwaite, who is the oldest living descendant of the Queen’s Bush settlement.

Rella was born in the Mapleton hamlet of Lebanon and enjoyed an accomplished career as a journalist, author and civil rights activist. Her older sister, Addie Aylestock, became the first ordained Black woman in Canada and served in several British Methodist Episcopal Churches until she passed away in 1998.

Diana Braithwaite was also joined at the festival by aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, many of whom travelled from throughout Ontario, eastern Canada and the U.S. to pay tribute to the area’s early black settlers.

“I’m just so amazed that people have travelled so far to see the festival,” Braithwaite said with a smile.

She added the goal is to grow the festival, which she hopes will become an annual event featuring “world class musicians” and other forms of entertainment.

Last weekend musical numbers ranging from jazz to blues to “Negro spirituals” were performed in front of hundreds of locals and visitors, who this year lounged in lawn chairs or on picnic tables.

Braithwaite said it was a great atmosphere and an improvement on last year’s event, where spectators sat in bleachers.

“It has a really nice feel to it,” she said of the more informal, yet more intimate, seating arrangements.

Guests were entertained by artists such as Douglas Watson, Chris Whitely, Melissa Adamson, Lionel Williams and Braithwaite herself, who called Glen Allan “one of the main stops on the Underground Railroad.”

Mapleton Mayor John Green thanked everyone for attending and said he shares Braithwaite’s commitment to expanding the festival into a weekend-long event.

“This is a very important part of our history in this community,” Green said, thanking Braithwaite for carrying on the celebration.

He added, “This is a proud, proud part of this country’s history,” and people should be pleased to celebrate it in Mapleton?Township.

At its peak in 1840, the Queen’s Bush settlement was home to about 2,000 black settlers; almost all escaped slaves and immigrants from the United States.

It was the largest concentration of black settlers in Ontario, encompassing an area about 12 miles by eight miles, in what would become Woolwich and the southern portion of former Peel Township.

“God brought us through that Underground Railroad ... He made it happen,” Watson, a Chicago native, told the crowd between musical numbers.

Several speakers at the festival offered a historical account of the Queen’s Bush settlement, which despite its size, is not well known.

It died out almost quickly as it began, after the government ordered the area surveyed and black settlers could not afford to buy the land on which they had settled and built churches, school and roads.

And when slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865, most returned to their native land.

But thanks to people like the Braithwaites, the rich history of the area will not only remembered, but also  celebrated every year.

“Diana Braithwaite has poured her heart and soul into this festival,”?Whitely said. “We really need to thank her.”

 

Vol 43 Issue 33

 
 

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