When people ask singer and actress Arlene Duncan where she’s really from, she tells them that her family has been in Canada for five generations. As a Black woman, she says, she’s always met with a look of surprise. “It's really an ignorant question,” she says.
In fact, Duncan’s family helped shape the town that my own family now calls home. Located just 30 minutes away from Toronto’s gleaming city lights, Oakville is often stereotyped as a haven for the white and the affluent. But, unknown to many of its residents, it has a rich Black history. In the 19th century, it was the Black community that helped shape this once forested area into a bustling port town.
Between 1850 and 1860, approximately 400 Black people settled in Oakville, representing 20 per cent of the town’s population of 2,000 people, according to the city’s archives. These free Black residents had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, along with the 36,000 other Black fugitives who made their way to Canada, which had abolished slavery in 1834 as part of Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act.
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As the Canadian Encyclopedia notes, the last slave purchase in this country occurred in 1824, 40 years before our American neighbours abolished slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed free Black people to be recaptured and sold back into slavery — driving many African-Americans to seek refuge north of the border in communities as Oakville.
Rivers often provided pathways to freedom. After James Wesley Hill escaped slavery in
1850, records in the Oakville Museum’s archives show, he left Maryland by crossing the Potomac River — known for its fast and dangerous rapids — into Pennsylvania. From there, he was driven up into Canada concealed in a packing box.
Once in Oakville, he established himself as a successful farmer: his 100-acre enterprise helped lift the town out of a temporary economic depression — turning it into the strawberry capital of Canada. What was extraordinary about Hill was not only that he escaped slavery, but that he returned to the U.S. numerous times to aid in the escape of others, sometimes carrying runaway slaves on his back or hiding them in cornfields. He rescued 800 people in total. His farmhouse, at 457 Maple Grove Drive, still stands, and in 1993, it was designated “as a property of historical and architectural value and interest” pursuant to the Ontario Heritage Act.)
Sixteen Mile Creek, today known as a popular hiking spot, was a common escape route. Robert Wilson, a white schooner captain, hid runaway slaves in his ship during his many journeys from upstate New York to Oakville. Those he helped would gather annually at his house, at 41 Navy Street — which still stands today — to recognize his significant contribution.
The first person in Duncan’s family to come to Canada was her great-great-grandfather, Samuel Adams — a free man who moved from Baltimore in 1855 with $800 worth of gold in his pocket (the equivalent of about $26,700 in today’s dollars). He invented a device, the stonehooker, that lifted smooth flat stones from the bottom of Lake Ontario, which were then used to construct houses.
“Black people are the fabric of Canada,” says Duncan. “Our history has been erased; now it’s coming back, and it’s a revelation that Black people didn’t just come across the Underground Railroad or as domestics in the 1960s.”
By the mid-19th century, the town was filled with other industrious Black entrepreneurs. Joe Wordsworth worked as a barber, hairdresser, curler, and clothes cleaner. John Cosley, a barber and gunsmith, modernized guns and ammunition with his design for a breech-loading rifle. He was also known for his newspaper, the Bee, which, according to records in the Community Development of Halton, shut down after he insulted several notable local figures.
But the heartbeat of this Black community was Turner Chapel. Founded by Adams and his brother-in-law Reverend William Butler in 1891,Turner Chapel was an African Methodist Episcopal Church, an extension of the Protestant denomination established by African-Americans largely in response to segregation and discrimination from white churches.
Rosemary Sadlier, former president of the Ontario Black History Society and author of The Black Church in Canada, notes that, during this era, people’s social lives revolved around church. “At one point, the church was everything,” she says. “It was the gymnasium, the social hub, the place to go for dinner, recreation — everything.”
In fact, many people within this growing Black community were quite literally family, thanks to the marital alliances that came out of Turner Chapel. Duncan’s great-grandfather, Jeremiah Adams, who was the church’s groundskeeper, married Eliza, Reverend Butler’s daughter. Duncan’s grandmother, Isabella Duncan; her sister Martha Wayner; and Martha’s in-laws played an essential role in maintaining Turner Chapel during the Great Depression as the church faced many financial struggles.
Much later, Duncan recalls, when she was a child in the ’60s, church picnics were a big
to-do. “The food, the potluck, the barbecue — I remember all that when I was growing up, for sure.” The church’s rich cultural scene, filled with gospel music and holiday concerts, also appealed to her. However, over the years, the congregation started to diminish. Many congregants either moved away or passed away, Sadlier explains, and the local Black community dwindled as more and more Black Canadians began to make their way to Toronto. (The church, at 37 Lakeshore Road, is now an antique shop.)
Much of this history would have remained hidden if not for the efforts of Alvin Duncan, Arlene’s father, who operated as Oakville’s resident Black historian until his death in 2009.
Arlene’s cousin Lorraine Unnett, who also attended Turner Chapel and grew up in Oakville, says that she and Arlene would gather around as “Uncle Alvy” told stories. “104 Burnet Street seemed to be like the point where all the family members came,” says Unnett of her childhood home, which has been in her family for 105 years. “[The house] was the focal point. My mother was like the matriarch of the family, and Uncle Alvy would be there constantly sharing stories.” Arlene’s mother, Icilda, founded the Canadian Caribbean Association of Halton.
Four months ago, I went for a walk in Burnet Park with my parents, and they talked about all its connections to local Black history. My parents have been the only Black family on their street for years, and for at least half a decade, we were the only Black family within a one-kilometre radius. I was a teenager when I was living in Oakville: when people asked me where I was really from and raised their eyebrows in surprise when I said Canada, I’d mumble some answer about how my parents worked in Oakville and then move on.
I hope that, one day, my future children won’t have to face such questions. But, for now, when I do encounter it, I look people dead in the eye and ask them where they are from, before telling them what Duncan told me: “We are here, and we’ve been here all along.”