When Toronto born blues singer Diana Braithwaite was growing up, she found that the history she was learning in school to be not nearly as interesting as the history she learned at home from her mother: the story of her ancestors, the black pioneers of the Queen’s Bush Settlement. Now, she is returning to the area to host the second annual Underground Railroad Music Festival, which will feature a number of different musicians, all performing to honour the Underground Railroad and the pioneers who settled in the region.
“It is going to be a celebration of all sorts of different kinds of music,” said Braithwaite. “There will be some gospel, some blues, a bit of soul and traditional music and a bit of jazz.”
Diana’s mother Aylestock, 87, is one of the oldest living descendents of the Queen’s Bush pioneers. Through a column she wrote for a newspaper in Toronto and family stories, Aylestock taught Diana the story of the largest black settlement in the region.
“My mother wanted us to know our history,” said Braithwaite. “We used to make trips to the area to visit churches and family who still live there. It’s so important to take pride in where you come from.”
Beginning around 1820, African-Canadians and African-American immigrants began building farms and constructing homes in the wilderness of the area known as the Queen’s Bush, which extended from Waterloo County to Lake Huron. The majority settled in the southern half of Peel Township in Wellington County but the Queen’s Bush Settlement also included the northern half of Wellesley Township and the western portion of Woolwich Township. By 1840, it was home to the largest and by far the most widely dispersed of all Upper Canada’s black settlements, containing at its peak between 1,500 and 2,000 people.
Although the conditions were harsh, these free and formerly enslaved black pioneers created farms throughout the land, establishing churches, schools and a thriving community life. Unfortunately for the settlers, the Queen’s Bush Settlement was short-lived. In the 1840s, the government ordered the district surveyed and few settlers were able to purchase the land they had worked so hard to clear. By the 1850s, migration out of the Queen’s Bush had begun. Despite these odds, some African-Canadian families continued to live there well into the 20th century.
“I wanted to do something to acknowledge and celebrate my ancestry, and music is a natural way for me to do that,” explained Braithwaite. “It is a time for people to reacquaint and make new friends while hearing great music in a beautiful setting. I am really looking forward to seeing how the event will have grown since last year.”
The festival takes place today (Saturday) between 1 and 4 p.m. in the village of Glen Allan. All are invited and welcome to attend and visitors are encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs. For more information, contact Diana Braithwaite at 416-857-4951 or visit www.braithwaiteandwhitely.com.