Especial thanks to undergraduate English student Alexandra Siebert for this guest blog post. Ally is the recipient of a President’s Scholarship of Distinction, which has facilitated this collaboration. –JLH
As the weather gets warmer and we spring our clocks forward, the end that is most on our minds is the end to a long winter. However, February 28th also marked the end of Black History Month. Blinked and missed it? You’re not the only one. In fact, this year I had even more cause to remember, but I had my blinders on too.
I have had the opportunity this term to work with Dr. Jennifer Harris, associate professor of American Literature at UWaterloo, on a project that involves archival research into the lives of African North Americans who came to Canada from the United States in the Nineteenth Century. Some were fugitives from slavery, some were legally free; all were looking for a different kind of life in Canada.
This project is particularly close to home given that a significant group of African American immigrants established themselves in an area called the Queen’s Bush Settlement, along the Grand River and near the Townships of Wellesley, north of Kitchener-Waterloo. The land had to be cleared but was fertile and fruitful. After a few years of back-breaking work, these Black settlers began “to achieve a measure of success, a good home, a productive farm and economic stability,” according to Linda Brown-Kubisch, author of The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1839-1865.
Working with the Black Heritage Society of Guelph, Dr. Harris and some of her students are piecing together the stories of these Ontario settlers from census records, old newspaper clippings, and prior research. Though some of their descendants remain in Ontario, many moved away from their farms to find work in bigger Canadian cities or returned to the United States after the end of the Civil War.
The difficulty in doing work like this, as I am discovering, is that sometimes the personal side of history gets lost. A good story is not constructed by birth dates and death dates alone. The intimate details of a life are required in order to understand a person as a whole.
Take Henrietta Still, for example. According to an 1850 United States Census, she was a Black woman born around 1817 in Pennsylvania, and later married a man named Samuel who worked as a tanner in Lower Merion, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. They had two children, Charles and Henrietta Sophia.
Eleven years later, in the Ontario Census from 1861, Henrietta Still and her two children show up in Peel County. Henrietta listed as a widow.
What happened to Samuel? Why did they come to Canada? How did Henrietta survive in Ontario and provide for her family? What kind of woman was she, especially given the wildness of the farmland and the time in which she was living?
In an effort to answer some of these questions, I have been browsing through newspaper clippings from the 1860s. So far, I have learned that other Henriettas were put on trial for theft, and had letters waiting for them to pick up at the post office. The most famous Henrietta in the area at this time appears to be an American yacht: a very different Southern woman than the one for whom I am searching.
In my mind, what I have of Henrietta Still’s story feels incomplete, though my research into her extended family is not yet finished. I might end up finding something that sets her apart from the other Queen’s Bush settlers, something that solidifies her place in history as a woman with personality, goals, struggles, and stories.
But then again, I might not. Regardless of her lasting impact on our archives, I know that Henrietta Still’s life has had a lasting impact on the lives of her descendants, and because of that, on the lives of all of us who call this area home. Her story should be told despite the fact that it will never make it into our history books.
Just because Black History Month has come and gone with so little attention on campus does not mean that we can similarly forget to remember the people, notable or entirely unnoticed, who have lived and worked in this area. Perhaps the end of this celebratory month should signal the beginning of a full-time interest in the telling of their stories.
Thanks again to Alexandra Siebert for contributing to Words in Place.