emanc-fullBy Paulette Peirol

The Owen Sound Emancipation Festival – the oldest Black freedom festival on the continent -- is being recognized by the Ontario Black History Society.

The festival will be granted the Harriet Tubman Award at the society's awards brunch in Toronto this weekend. The black history society is the group behind Black History Month, celebrated each February across the country.

"The oldest emancipation festival in North America is finally being recognized by the black history society," said festival chairman Blaine Courtney. "We are quite pleased and proud of that, especially since Harriet Tubman was part of the establishment of the Underground Railroad."

Owen Sound was the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s, providing a safe and welcoming haven for hundreds of Blacks fleeing slavery. The "railroad" was a secret route from the U.S. to Canada, where slavery was abolished, with "conductors" helping the fugitives on their way. Tubman was perhaps the most famous of these conductors. A former slave herself, she led more than 70 people to freedom, risking her life with each trip across the border.

The first Owen Sound emancipation celebration took place in 1862. "Despite wars and a depression the Owen Sound community continued to honour their black heritage, never missing the annual gathering over the next 153 years," Courtney told a recent meeting of the Owen Sound Cultural Committee.

The Owen Sound festival "may not be the largest annual Emancipation celebration, but it can proudly claim to be the longest continual running event recognizing the abolition of slavery within the British Commonwealth on August 1st, 1834," he said.

In the late 1800s, Blacks made up more than 10 per cent of Owen Sound's population. They were some of the first settlers of this community. The emancipation festival has always drawn both black and white supporters, leaders and organizers.

In 2002, the emancipation picnic became a non-profit corporation known as the Owen Sound Emancipation Festival and activities expanded. Today, the group partners with Grey Roots Museum & Archives and the City of Owen Sound and is involved in numerous events, including:

  • A Black History Event in April
  • Heritage Fair for elementary students
  • One World Fair

Its main event is the two-day Emancipation Festival during the August 1st weekend every year, which features a speaker's forum, ancestors breakfast, picnic, kids zone, gospel workshop, and music in the evening. It's drawn notable speakers such as Lawrence Hill, George Elliot Clarke, Brian Price and Leslie McCurdy, and is a tourism draw for the city as well.

The festival takes place in Harrison Park, home of the city's Black History Cairn, a commemorative monument celebrating black history and the Underground Railroad. The cairn contains stones from sites of historical significance in the U.S., Canada and Africa, including former U.S. slave states.

The Emancipation festival committee plans to launch a black history essay contest for students this year and to partner with the local OHL team, the Owen Sound Attack, to share stories of black athletes that have triumphed in professional hockey.

Courtney will accept the Harriet Tubman Award on behalf of the festival on Sunday, January 25th. He was recently named a recipient of the province's Newcomer Champion Award, which recognizes citizens who foster a more welcoming society. Courtney has been involved with the Emancipation Festival for close to a decade, and has chaired the festival for the past four years.


www.emancipation.ca(link is external).


http://www.greyroots.com/exhibitions/virtual-exhibits/black-history/(link is external)

Paulette Peirol is Tourism Marketing Co-Ordinator for the City of Owen Sound.