By Arden Dier
A local woman is using Black History Month to educate people about what she calls the missing chapters of Canadian life.
Heather Rennalls, a historical researcher and freelance writer, set up a display at the opening ceremony of Black History Month to showcase black people’s contributions to Oxford County.
“There’s Ingersoll, Otterville and Woodstock,” she said, pointing to various articles posted on her display at Museum London. “Each section has their different populations. Everyone has their different story.”
Rennalls explained that each community had a significant black population during the 1800s. Freed slaves, many of whom were from New York, purchased and cleared land, helped build sawmills, schools, churches and overall “developed the communities enjoyed by immigrants of every race and colour.”
There were several early black communities in the area, not just in Oxford County. Wilberforce, located 25 kilometres north of London in Lucan, was one of the first black settlements in Canada.
The settlement, named after British abolitionist William Wilberforce, was established by free blacks from Cincinnati. Some of their descendants remain in the area today, including those of escaped slave Peter Butler, whose grandson Peter C. Butler became Canada’s first black police officer.
Other early settlements included Elgin Settlement, southwest of Chatham, and Dawn Settlement, near present-day Dresden, where leader Josiah Henson became an inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Rennalls describes black history as “forgotten,” noting that many people are unaware of black contributions, including the invention of the traffic signal.
“The most important part is to let people know that black people were here for a very long time, back in the 1600s, and we’ve made contributions to the community,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t even familiar that there was even slavery in Canada. It’s not just talking about the bad things but this is history.”
For London-West MPP Chris Bentley, who spoke at the event, it was because of the struggles black people faced that we now have the human rights code, protecting “not just black people, not just white people, but all people of many races.”
“That is just a small part of the legacy that we celebrate and recognize during Black History Month,” Bentley said. “Our black community has been instrumental in forming, creating, making Canada and Ontario what we are.”
Rennalls described the atmosphere of the celebrations as peaceful, loving and “amazing.”
“If you could take that and transcend that out of these walls, this world would be a much better place,” she said. “Discrimination still happens unfortunately and I think the day when that doesn’t exist… maybe there won’t be a need (for Black History Month).”
Christina Lord, chair of the London Black History Coordinating Committee, said there is more promotion of black contributions than there used to be, “but there is still room for improvement.”
“Our history and thoughts for the future go well beyond this month,” she said. “We should continue to work together to break down the racial barriers that still exist.”
As president and entertainment coordinator of Afrofesta, a festival celebrating African and Caribbean culture in London, Trish Kiwanuka believes one way to do that is to hold multicultural events year-round.
“You don’t really see everyone together in one place unless it’s February,” she said.
Kiwanuka said events like Sunfest bring forth a world of cultures and allow individuals to taste different foods, listen to a variety of music and interact with diverse people.
“It’s very enriching, especially for children,” said Kiwanuka. “I have two little ones and every year they say, ‘What’s that? What’s that flag?’ It’s very educational for them.”
“I think the more, the better. The more events we have, the more people that come out, the more we get along – like that song when you’re a kid. ‘The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.’”
Black history celebrations continue for the rest of the month and will conclude with the closing gala Feb. 26.