From about 1830 until the end of the American Civil War, escaped slaves made their way across the Canada-U.S. border through the Underground Railroad, a secret route that led to freedom (there was no actual railroad involved). Many were headed for the Village of Sydenham (Owen Sound), the last "terminal" of the railroad, and settled here, finding work and raising families.
With the arrival of the earliest settlers such as Richard Ringo and John "Daddy" Hall, the City's first town crier, Black people have worked hard to make a place for themselves where they could live and raise their children in freedom and peace.
In honour of these settlers, a commemorative cairn in Harrison Park was unveiled on July 31, 2004 at the annual Emancipation festival and picnic. The picnic has been held every year since 1862, always on the first weekend in August, marking the anniversary of the British Emancipation Act of August 1, 1834. It is believed to be the longest-running Emancipation event in North America.
Owen Sound's Historic Walking Tour includes several stops that help illustrate the city's Black history, including the Kennedy Foundry site, Molock House, the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Pettigrow/Urquhart house, the Farmer's Market building, Tone Yoga Studio (a former Congregational Church) and Harrison Park.
Owen Sound's black history is commemorated in the Black History Cairn, a reverent memorial to our first black settlers, who sought freedom from slavery through the Underground Railroad.
The cairn is located in Harrison Park, in a quiet spot near the Sydenham River that offers space for contemplation.
Through symbolism and interpretive plaques, the cairn traces the route of those abducted from their native Africa and forced into slavery in the West Indies and the United States, escaping into Canada from the 1830s onward. Their courage and hard work contributed to the growth of Owen Sound and Grey County.
Unveiled in August 2004 during the annual Emancipation Festival and Picnic at Harrison Park, the cairn is admired for its cultural, historic and artistic qualities. It was designed by Bonita Johnson de Matteis, a local artist with black roots in the community. Jim Hong Louie, another local artist, crafted the quilt codes at the base of the sculpture.
The windows in the cairn are fashioned after those in the "Little Zion Church," the first black church in Owen Sound, and the broken shackles speak for themselves. The cairn is accompanied by interpretive plaques that help tell the story of our Black history.
The cairn itself includes stones from places in Canada, the United States and Africa, each with a direct connection to slavery or the abolition movement. It is hoped that more stones will be added over time, making the cairn a living monument. If you have a stone to donate please call the Tourism office at 519-376-4440 ext 1245.
Owen Sound's British Methodist Episcopal Church has been serving the spiritual needs of its congregation for more than 150 years. Established in 1856, it's almost as old as the City itself.
A strong religious base was important to Black settlers, including escaped slaves, when they arrived in Canada. Those who settled in Owen Sound were no exception. The BME Church that they founded was a safe haven during the time of the Underground Railroad and after. Although they were free, Blacks still faced racism and discrimination and the church served as a means of support in an environment that was at times hostile.
How the church came to be
The church was initially served by a lay preacher, "Father" Thomas Henry Miller, the son of a slave who informally led the congregation 1851. He passed away on October 17, 1911, the same year the congregation moved for its fifth and final time.
The first church, the "Little Zion," was a log building on the east side of the Sydenham River near the current Farmers' Market. The church was torn down in the 1990s when the building was deemed unsafe.
A second church, a log shanty near 12th Street East between 1st and 2nd avenues, was built in 1856. The BME congregation moved to a third site, on the east hill at 7th Avenue East and 9th Street East, in 1862. By then, it had about 120 members. A fourth church was built at 779 2nd Avenue West.
The church moved to its current location at 245 11th Street West in February, 1911, purchasing it from the Westside Methodist Church for $1.
One of its trustees was "Dad" Henson, a cousin of Josiah Henson, Methodist preacher and founder of the Dawn Community and on whom Harriet Beecher Stowe based Uncle Tom of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Family names of the congregation in 1911 included: Ady, Patterson, Johnson, Miller, Molock, Branston, Harrison, Courtney, Porter, Smith, Thompson, Scurvy, Smoot, Roy, Green, Jackson, O'Bryan, Hall, Henson and Borey. Some of those families still live in Owen Sound today.
Many church members worked on the Great Lakes ships that frequented the Owen Sound harbour. They offered "Sailors Suppers," which became a drawing card for the Owen Sound area. Early church members also founded Owen Sound's Emancipation Festival and Picnic, an annual tradition held every Civic Holiday weekend for more than 150 years.
The BME church currently holds services for a very small congregation. It was designated an Ontario Heritage site by Lieutenant Governor Lincoln Alexander in 1987.
Owen Sound's Emancipation Festival is thought to be the oldest in North America, if not the world. Begun as a simple picnic to celebrate Emancipation Day, it has continued since 1862, welcoming people of all backgrounds interested in appreciating history, family, culture and community.
It celebrates those who made the Underground Railroad possible - braving a perilous journey from slavery to freedom - and commemorates the British Commonwealth Emancipation Act of August 1, 1834, which abolished slavery in Canada.
The festival is held during the first weekend in August. Descendents of blacks who came to Owen Sound via the Underground Railroad return to reminisce and enjoy a time of fellowship, while paying homage those who fought for freedom.
Harrison Park is the heart of the action, where an ancestors' breakfast, commemorative cairn celebration and afternoon picnic are held on the Saturday of the event. Grey Roots Museum & Archives hosts an evening event on the Friday, often involving artists, musicians, scholars, poets, and others passionate about black history. On Sunday, a service is traditionally held at the British Methodist Episcopal Church on 11th Street West (the church is part of Owen Sound's Historic Walking Tour).
Festival organizers are seeking ancestral stories, photographs or interviews with older generations for their archives.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to contribute.
Codes and secret messages aided slaves escaping the bonds of captivity in the Southern states through the Underground Railroad.
Dance, spirituals, symbols, code words and phrases allowed the slaves to communicate with each other on a level their white owners could not interpret (it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write). The codes, stories and teachings were memorized and passed down orally.
Some believe that quilt patterns were also used as a form of secret code to help pass on directions or messages to escaping slaves. While many have questioned this theory, it remains part of the folklore that surrounds the Underground Railroad, and quilt codes are incorporated into the Black History Cairn in Owen Sound.
Each quilt pattern had a different meaning. Some of the most common were "Monkey Wrench", "Star", "Crossroads", and "Wagon Wheel." Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill, seemingly to air, passed on the necessary information to knowing slaves without alerting plantation owners.
Most quilt patterns had their roots in the African traditions the slaves brought with them to North America when they were captured and forced to leave their homeland. The Africans' method of recording their history and stories was by committing them to memory and passing them down orally to following generations. Quilt patterns were preserved the same way. It is interesting to note that, in Africa, the making of textiles was done by males; it was not until the slaves' arrival in North America that this task fell to the females.