cairn-fullby Jon Farmer

I met Lisa McAllister at Grey County's Black History Event standing in front of her grandmother's bible. Printed in 1867, the bible was on display in the atrium of the Grey Roots Museum and Archives, turned open to a page with the birth and death dates of relatives from the early 1900s. She had arrived early to prepare her presentation on Underground Railroad quilts and the way they told stories.

Lisa and I were both born and raised in Owen Sound. The roots of both of our family trees dig deeply into this soil. I'm at least 5th generation Owen Sound and I know that one of my ancestors bought land in the area in the late 1860s. Lisa's family history goes back further. Standing in front of her grandmother's bible, she told me stories about the heirlooms and keepsakes she found in her grandmother's home when she passed, describing letters and photographs older than our country. Her home had been in the family since Lisa's great-great-grandfather built it on 11th St West after arriving in the area in 1856.

Grey County's Black History Event is an annual function, organized by the Emancipation Festival. This year it featured presentations on our area's connection to the Underground Railroad, the lived experiences of local people of colour, a salute to Les MacKinnon, and culminated in the official release of the 12th volume of Northern Terminus: The African Canadian History Journal published by the Grey County Archives.

Despite being born and raised in this community, most of what I heard that day was new to me. I recognized the names of some black historical figures but, really, I knew almost nothing beyond the often repeated claim that Owen Sound is the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad. It was easy to tell who was heavily involved with the Emancipation Festival as they greeted one another with hugs and traded stories, especially during the tribute to Les MacKinnon - "Grey County's investigative researcher into all things Black history".

How could I – a life-long Owen Sound resident – have not known anything about the depth of local Black history? The answer is simple: I was never told the stories and I never thought to ask for them. When I was in high school, some of us used to make fun of Owen Sound for its racial homogeneity. Racism grows from ignorance, and the roots of that racism also run deep in our county's soil. Les MacKinnon was hailed for his involvement with the Old Durham Road Pioneer Cemetery, the creation of which aggravated racial tensions in Priceville and area as recorded in this National Film Board documentary "Speakers for the Dead". More than anything, listening to the presentations and speaking with organizers, I realized that Grey County's Black History Event was an example of the kind of storytelling that testifies to the meaning of people and places.

I'm white. Most of my friends growing up were white. The same was true for my parents and grandparents. I grew up with family stories. When we stayed at my grandparents' as a child we would sometimes go through old photo albums. I was especially fascinated by my grandfather's school pictures. The local history I learned didn't include people of colour. It took me years to begin to wonder why there were more black children at Alexandra School in the 40s than at my elementary school in the 90s. At Grey County's Black History Event I met people with answers to my questions.

Bonita Johnson-deMatteis tells the story of her heritage in children's stories and in stone. She spoke at the event about the ways she learned her family and cultural history from her grandmother and about the challenges of identifying as black while being able to pass for white. She described the inspiration behind her design of the Black History Cairn in Harrison Park and the symbolism contained within its stones, windows, and tiles. Like the Black history of our county, Bonita's heritage is in her blood but a person would need to ask or be told about it to know its depth. Those stories shape who she is and but they take time to tell.

Before Grey County's Black History Event, I had never really taken the time to listen nor had I paid enough attention to ask. The Emancipation Festival's monument projects and annual events tell stories and create spaces that inspire people to ask questions about neighbours and heritage. Owen Sound is the Northern Terminus of the Underground Railroad but our local stories begin at the end of that road.


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