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Ours to discover: A road trip to learn about the past

Journeying to Chatham-Kent and Niagara offers insight into Black history in Ontario

Avatar By: Heather Greenwood Davis June 14, 2021
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About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions expected to ease over the next few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore – but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and weekend drives highlights great experiences you can have in the province once conditions allow and show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover” this summer and beyond.

The histories and contributions of Ontario’s Black community are often given short shrift in the greater Canadian historical context. A road trip through southern Ontario is an opportunity to meet the descendants of the incredible communities that, against all odds, thrived and survived in the province while also managing to leave lasting legacies that we all benefit from. This road trip itinerary offers a taste of the heroism and resilience of the community while also showcasing the beauty of the landscapes of the region.

For the full series, click here.

DAY ONE

In the morning: Leave Toronto ahead of rush hour traffic and drive west along Hwy 401, or Hwy 403 to where it meets Hwy 401 in Woodstock, for a roughly three-hour drive to the Chatham-Kent Region. Have breakfast before you leave or pack some fruits and light snacks knowing you’ll have lunch in the early afternoon.

Arrive in Chatham and head directly to the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society & Black Mecca Museum. There you can peek around at the exhibits that showcase the legacy of the Black community in the area since the early 1800s. Don’t miss the exhibit case featuring the Championship-winning Chatham Colored All-Stars and ask about purchasing one of the retro baseball caps that honour them.

The museum tour includes an eye-opening historic film and the chance to take a guided or self-guided walk of the area, including stops at the First Baptist church – where Abolitionist John Brown once held meetings ahead of his failed raid at Harper’s Ferry in the U.S. – and The BME Freedom Park. A bronze bust of Mary Ann Shad Cary, an anti-slavery activist and Canada’s first woman publisher, stands in the park on the site of the first Black Methodist Episcopal Church in the country.

Mecca

In the afternoon: Grab lunch at the Williams Street Cafe for made-to-order sandwiches or wraps and lighter fare. Take it to go so you can enjoy at one of the picnic tables or sitting on the grass at the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum. This is the site of the original Elgin Settlement, an all-Black community established in 1849 by a reformed slave owner and home to both Free Blacks and those who’d escaped American bondage via the Underground Railroad.

A traditional home, built to replicate one from the 1850s, can be explored on-site, as well as the original 1861 schoolhouse that taught generations in the community. The museum itself offers some context and you’ll want to spend at least a few hours on site. Don’t miss a chance to meet curator Shannon Prince, a sixth-generation Canadian who grew up in the area and traces her lineage directly to escaped American slaves.

Buxton

Buxton, ON — Shannon Prince, Curator of the Buxton National Historic Site. & Museum, inside the historic schoolhouse located next to the museum. The museum preserves the history of the Elgin Settlement, which was established in 1849 as a refuge for fugitive slaves escaping into Canada via the Underground Railroad. Kelsey Wilson/Toronto Star

In the evening: Check into Chatham’s Retro Suites Hotel where eclectic artwork and themed rooms will give you plenty of reasons to snap a photo inside. The corner where it is located has a history: The King William Block was built in 1888 and housed to the former Merrill Hotel. In those early years, like all hotels in downtown Chatham (including the famous William Pitt Hotel that once stood a few blocks away) Blacks would be hired for labour but they weren’t afforded service or access to hotel amenities, such as the dining room. If you prefer there are also a number of nearby bed and breakfasts.

Once you’re settled, head out to explore. The hotel is well positioned for an evening walk, taking in the murals, outdoor art and parkettes that provide a sense of what historic Chatham was like. For dinner, consider Mamma Maria’s Ristorante for a handmade pizza, pasta dish or an entree featuring perch or trout. Or check out nearby Sons of Kent Brewing Company for traditional pub grub and handcrafted beers, including a limited run that celebrated the Chatham Coloured All-Stars.

DAY TWO 

In the morning: Seize the day. Grab an early breakfast at the Chilled Cork or Eli’s and then set out for Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site. There you’ll learn about Josiah Henson, who fled American enslavement with his family and returned several times to help others. Tours showcase an incredible array of artifacts as well as an opportunity to walk through original structures. Don’t skip the gift shop where Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” based on Henson’s life, and Henson’s own autobiography are among the gems on the shelves.

Cabin

Begin your three-hour drive to the Niagara Region by heading back on Hwy 401 or taking the more rural Hwy 3, which will add about 30-minutes to your trip. Order and pick-up a pizza from Piezano’s before you leave Chatham-Kent so you can have lunch on the road. As you drive, take note that many of the fields you’re passing were once owned by Black farmers.

In the afternoon: Once you arrive in the Niagara Region, you won’t have time to waste. Skip the self-guided options and opt for a pre-booked, bespoke Niagara Bound Tour. Led by Lezlie Harper, a direct descendant of slaves who traversed the area, her tour brings a personal touch to the story of The Niagara Freedom Trail.

The trail stretches from Fort Erie to St. Catharines and Ancaster, with historic sites and buildings that help tell the story of the approximately 30,000 enslaved people who followed a network of secret routes and safe houses to escape to Canada between 1800 and 1865. The area’s connections to Harriet Tubman, who made 11 trips along the Underground Railroad to bring people to Canada, and the Coloured Corps, Black militia men who fought in the War of 1812, are all explored.

Press

In  the evening: If you have time, splurge on a dinner overlooking Horseshoe Falls at the Table Rock House Restaurant in Niagara Falls. It’ll give you a chance to truly take in the power of the waterway and also a sense of the dangers enslaved Black Africans faced as they risked their lives to cross the Niagara River to freedom. Then, start the drive back to Toronto knowing that you’ve only scratched the surface of the history here and are committed to continuing your understanding.

 

SIDEBAR: For the drive

Start your learning in the car by listening to Radio Canada International’s “Portraits of Black Canadians” series. The episodes featuring Josiah Henson, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Harriet Tubman will help inform the spots you’re visiting. If you’ve got baseball fans with you, deep diving into the story of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars (cdigs.uwindsor.ca/BreakingColourBarrier) ahead of your trip to get them excited.

 

SIDEBAR: COVID-19 need to know

Travel restrictions and advice continue to change as summer progresses and more people are vaccinated. Detailed information on local measures is available on the Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit website, ckphu.com, and on niagararegion.ca.

 

TIMELINE SIDEBAR: Drive Guide

Day one

  • 8 a.m. Leave Toronto
  • Drive west on Hwy 403
  • 11 a.m. CBHS Black Mecca Museum.
  • 1 p.m. Williams Street Cafe
  • 1:30 p.m. Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

 

  • 4 p.m. Retro Suites Hotel
  • 5:30 p.m. Explore Chatham
  • 6:30 p.m. Mamma Maria’s Ristorante or Sons of Kent Brewing Company
  • Side trip: Grab a cone from Riverside Ice Cream
  • 8 p.m. Walk back to hotel

Day two

  • 7:30 a.m. Wake up
  • 8:15 a.m. Chilled Cork or Eli’s
  • 9 a.m. Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site
  • 11 a.m. Drive Hwy 401 of Hwy 3 east
  • 2 p.m. Niagara Region and North Bound Tours
  • 2:15 p.m. The Niagara Freedom Trail
  • 5:30 p.m. Table Rock House Restaurant
  • 7 p.m. Drive back to Toronto

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