Songs of perseverance, hope and celebration, family stories of desperate runs to freedom, local Black history, and fond, personal memories all marked Saturday’s 158thOwen Sound Emancipation Festival.
Normally a gathering held in Harrison Park, this time the festival was online for almost two hours during a YouTube broadcast due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which made the annual Owen Sound gathering in person impossible.
The recorded production included more than a dozen voices from festivals past, including volunteers, members of the local Black community, academics, politicians, poets and others.
It included history of the festival, which is the oldest of its kind in Canada. It has has been taking place in Owen Sound, the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad, since 1862.
There was the story of the late city councillor Peter Lemon’s drive to mark Black history in the city with a monument, the cut-stone cairn in Harrison Park, and its Freedom Trail footpath. Some shared stories about their descendants.
There were also reminders that while celebrating the 1834 Emancipation Act, which freed all Black people in the British Commonwealth, the festival happens amid today’s Black Lives Matters movement to combat racism and police violence.
A recent BLM march through downtown Owen Sound ended at the cairn, its designer, Bonita Johnson deMatteis noted.
“What a testament to your ancestors that you have continued this work. It’s so vitally important. You helped to bring such awareness to the importance of emancipation,” remarked Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard.
Bernard is supporting a bill by Richmond Hill Liberal MP Majid Jowhari to federally recognize Emancipation Day on Aug. 1. Her bill to do so in 2018 was dropped.
She also expressed hope that some portion of future Emancipation Day festivals would remain online, to reach people who can’t come. She’s attended for the past two years.
Bruce Kruger, dressed in red, white and black town crier finery, opened the festival as tradition dictates, by ringing his bell at the Black history cairn and announcing in full voice his emancipation message.
“Sadly, it’s time for the world to once again rise up in peaceful yet firm and determined civil protest to stop the continued, systemic racism increasing within our community,” Kruger declared.
Rob Leverty, the executive director of the Ontario Historical Society, said the festival “stands on the shoulders of the great men and women not only in the past but in the present.
“And at this important moment in Canadian history, we want to show you our unrelenting solidarity with the emancipation festival,” he said, holding up his fist.
But the festival is traditionally a relaxed and joyful time and deMatteis and others stressed this too.
“The thing I think I’m going to miss about the gathering this year is just people, just family, just food,” she said. Her scrapbook-style book published last year about the cairn, which included photos, recipes and stories and memories, is a “love story.”
Flesherton publisher Barry Penhale, one of the video’s producers, said that since the 1840s, African Americans, many escaped slaves, were part of the thriving community of Sydenham, now Owen Sound.
Many who escaped left family members behind in states including Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland, South Carolina and North Carolina.
“Sheltered in free houses dubbed stations and aided by a network of supporters known as conductors, the wary travellers often moving in darkness followed the North Star on their hazardous route to Canada, along what is known as the Underground Railroad,” he said.
Normally a three-day event, the festival traditionally features guest speakers Friday night at Grey Roots museum, a picnic-style gathering in Harrison Park with music and fellowship Saturday and Sunday morning gospel music in the Moreston barn.
The premiere attracted 483 views, including 300 by non-subscribers to the Emancipation Festival’s YouTube channel, according to information from Tim Reilly, of Leaking Ambience Studio in Flesherton, which put the recording together.
To watch Emancipation Day: Honouring Black Ancestors, visit the Owen Sound Emancipation Festival on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQZno52nAsHlzAHmzJNiWLg/videos.