Nicola Thomas is back home after her series of road trips to discover the lost history of Black diaspora in Ontario, of which Wellesley Township plays a part.
Thomas drove in her van all over Ontario looking for stories of Black settlers, especially women, who moved through Ontario as they sought freedom from slavery. Thomas calls the project the “Sankofa 100 Miles to Freedom Tour.” Sankofa is a word that means, “to go back and fetch what was left behind,” and here, Thomas is applying it to mean retracing and regaining the province’s largely forgotten Black history.
During her journeys, she went to Buxton, Oakville, Amherstberg, Port Burwell, Owen Sound and Bancroft, to name just a few of her stops. Her original goal was to find passed down oral stories of Black female diaspora.
“I think I had a very wide, big wish list,” she said. “Firstly, starting to think that I could find oral stories from the 1840s, which is very difficult. People have more sort of immediate memories and memories from great-grandparents and that kind of thing. The other thing was the Indigenous connection. I have had so little of that,” she said.
“The other part was that each of the places that I went, by the time I made the connection with the person that is a descendant, I was leaving. So now I have a number of connections in each of these sites that I’ve got to follow up with because they have the information. I didn’t actually necessarily get it while I was on the road, and I found the people to get it from.”
She says she plans to pursue these connections and continue with her work.
Throughout her travels, Thomas says she met a black woman who is a descendent of former slaves, and whose home church is Sandwich Baptist Church in Windsor, the oldest active Black church in Canada. It was built by former slaves.
“That one was built with the mud from the Detroit River. They made the clay to build it,” she said.
She also found that she is not the only one going on a pilgrimage to retrace Black history in Ontario. Other people are on similar journeys, such as Zwena Gray, a Black woman from Detroit who walked the Bruce Trail to Owen Sound this summer to retrace the steps of people on the Underground Railroad. Owen Sound is known as the Railroad’s last stop.
Thomas also spoke about Negro Creek Road in Chatsworth Township. Local descendents of Black settlers fought to keep the name of the road as is, because they felt renaming was a form of erasure of their history, she said.
Thomas has saved Wellesley Township until last. “There’s so much to get into here,” she said.
Black settlers escaping slavery cleared some land in the Queen’s Bush, which was the name given to the large area between Waterloo County and Lake Huron. Some of their notable settlements were along the Peel and Wellesley township border, Glen Allen, Wallenstein and Hawkesville. The Canadian government later surveyed the land, and priced it too high for the Black settlers to afford. By 1850 the Black settlers began migrating out of the Queen’s Bush settlement.
Thomas says this fall she will be working with a local historian to retrace the plots originally cleared by Black settlers and learn about who they were.
“It’s so enriching,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that it’s crappy history, there’s also always good stories in there. And we just want our truth, so that we can recognize and honour the people that made it so that we can enjoy the part of our communities that we do now. And people want that.”