In the Local History Department, we are keenly aware of how fragile the historical record can be. Our collection showcases the history of Waterloo, but only the history that someone in the past believed was worth saving. We know what King Street looked like in the 1970s because someone thought to take a photo. We know what songs the Waterloo Band liked to play because someone thought to save a concert program. Old newspaper articles also give us great insight into the issues that were important to past residents of Waterloo. But what about the things that were deemed unimportant by our Waterloo predecessors? What about the people and places that were forgotten?
Over the past number of years, local historians have been working to uncover the stories of people who have traditionally been overlooked in Waterloo Region’s historical narrative. One of these underrepresented groups of people are Black Canadians. Although their stories are harder to find, it would be a mistake to think that Black people were not present and active in our local history. The following books are available in the Ellis Little Local History Room at WPL’s Main Library and can be put on hold through our Encore catalogue.
One of the most prominent researchers of Black history in Waterloo Region was Linda Brown-Kubisch, who wrote The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1839-1865. The Queen’s Bush Settlement was a community of Black settlers that was located on the border of Waterloo County and Wellington County, near Hawkesville. Many of these early settlers had escaped from slavery and worked hard to build a new life for themselves in the harsh Canadian wilderness.
In the “Introduction” of Brown-Kubisch’s book, she writes about her research experience. When she began writing the book, she wasn’t sure how much information she’d be able to find, since Queen’s Bush had only been briefly mentioned in other sources. However, she soon realized that there was a wide variety of public documents available, such as tax records, land deeds, marriage records, and death records. It took her twelve years, but she was able to make sense of these records and bring them together into a readable history. Her book makes Black history in Waterloo Region much more accessible to the general public.
Joanna Rickert-Hall is another local historian who has put in the work to track down the stories of Black people and other marginalized groups who lived in Waterloo Region. In her book, Waterloo You Never Knew: Life on the Margins, you will find a chapter entitled “The Underground Railway Makes a Stop in Waterloo County.” This chapter looks at people such as Peter Edward Susand, owner of multiple businesses, and Robert Sutherland, Canada’s first Black lawyer. Rickert-Hall also makes a point to highlight the stories of Black people who lived in the cities of Waterloo Region, outside of the Queen’s Bush Settlement.
Other notable work being done in Waterloo Region includes: Peggy Plet’s Stroll walking tour entitled “Black Presence in Berlin” and the City of Waterloo Museum’s efforts to research Isaac Jones, a Black man who accompanied Abraham Erb, Waterloo’s first non-Indigenous settler.
Fortunately, not all the work of uncovering Black history was left to the modern historian. Back in 1856, Benjamin Drew transcribed the stories of Black people living in Canada who had escaped slavery. His book is called The Refugee: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada and was written for an American abolitionist audience. It is equally chilling and illuminating to read about the early Black settlers’ experiences in their own words. If you look under the “Queen’s Bush” chapter, you will find stories from people who lived in Waterloo Region. The book is out of copyright and widely available online, but if you’d prefer a paper version, WPL has a copy that you can borrow.
As Black History Month wraps up for another year, many of us are left thinking “What’s next?” There are so many good answers to that question, but I would encourage you to consider taking a page from Benjamin Drew’s book. Ask yourself, how can we highlight Black stories in our community right now, so that in a hundred years historians aren’t left scratching their heads? How do we keep those stories from getting lost in the glut of the internet? How do we create a better, more inclusive archive for future generations? Finding the answers to these questions may take time, but these questions are worth thinking about long after Black History Month is over. What we do today will be tomorrow’s history.