Black settlers of Peel Township honoured in impressive ceremony

Bright sun and a warm breeze greeted more than 200 guests who attended the unveiling of a plaque honouring the early black settlers of the Queen’s Bush at Glen Allan on Aug. 2.

The ceremony culminated several years of planning by the Wellington County Historical Society and Ontario Heritage Trust, the provincial agency responsible for the blue-and-gold plaques that commemorate significant historic sites in Ontario.

Beth Hanna, of Ontario Heritage Trust, chaired the event. She offering a few words to explain the activities of the Trust and introduced MPP Ted Arnott, Warden John Green, and President Rob Black of the Wellington County Historical Society, all of whom brought greetings.

Lincoln Alexander, chairman of Ontario Heritage Trust, was a special guest, and he elicited many laughs with his determination to avoid using his prepared remarks.

Using his own career as an example, he encouraged youngsters to get as much education as possible and to work hard. Himself the son of immigrants, he was Canada’s first black cabinet minister in the early 1960s, and has spent much of his time over the past half century as a civil rights advocate, especially during his term as Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor.

Historian Karolyn Smardz Frost delivered a capsule history of the Queen’s Bush settlement. Though almost forgotten today, the settlement contained about 2,000 black settlers at its peak, 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 8 miles, in what would become Woolwich and the southern portion of Peel Township.

Located on unsurveyed land beyond what was then the fringe of civilization, settlement began in 1820 and reached its peak about 20 years later. Many of the settlers could not meet payments for their land after the area was surveyed in 1843, and some were victims of land agents. Those people drifted off, largely to urban centres. The settlement enjoyed a second wind in the 1850s following passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States. During its life, the settlement supported several churches and schools.

A handful of black settlers remained in Peel, several continuing to farm well into the 20th century. A few descendants of those settlers still live in Waterloo and Wellington, but most are widely dispersed across Ontario and beyond.

About 60 people with direct links to the Queen’s Bush settlement were present for the dedication ceremony. A special guest was Rev. James Lawson of Los Angeles. A veteran of the American civil rights movement, he was an associate of Rev. Martin Luther King, and was working with him when Dr. King was assassinated 40 years ago in Memphis.

Several of the speakers noted the work of the late Linda Kubisch, the historian who first seriously studied the Queen’s Bush settlement and its people. Her work led directly to the plaque.

Diana Braithwaite and Chris Whiteley opened and closed the event with spirituals that were probably familiar to the original settlers. Diana’s grandmother, Rella Braithwaite, aged 85, was also present. A direct descendent of Peel’s black pioneers, she enjoyed an accomplished career as a journalist and civil rights activist.

Assisted by a group of children he invited to the platform, Alexander unveiled the plaque honouring the Queen’s Bush settlement.

The day concluded with refreshments and socializing among the local residents, guests, and historians present. Several people remarked that an annual event should be held to commemorate this group of Wellington County pioneers.