Celebrating Emancipation Since 1862 in Owen Sound

News Story

The Owen Sound Emancipation Festival commemorates the British Commonwealth Emancipation Act of August 1, 1834. During the celebration, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were present to discuss the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. The project is helping Canadians of African-American descent to reconnect with their Civil War–era ancestors.

Owen Sound’s Emancipation Festival is considered to be the oldest of its kind in North America, and possibly the world. In 1862 the festival began as a picnic to celebrate Emancipation Day and has continued ever since. People of all backgrounds are welcome, especially those who are interested in history, family, culture and community. Beautiful Harrison Park, a treasure in itself, was the site of the activities.

Diane Downie, director of public affairs for the Barrie Ontario Stake, expressed her appreciation for Dorothy Abbott, the organizer of the event: “Dorothy has worked long and hard to bring this event to the forefront. Everybody loves the Owen Sound Emancipation Festival.”

At the morning program, Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard announced that she is sponsoring a private members’ bill in the fall, which will tell Owen Sound’s story and propose the national recognition of Emancipation Day every August 1. The announcement was met with great support from city officials and attendees alike. Pledging their support were Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound MP Larry Miller, Owen Sound Mayor Ian Boddy and Owen Sound Emancipation Festival spokesperson Dorothy Abbott.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century. The network was used by African-American slaves to escape into northern states and onward into Canada, aided by those who were sympathetic to their cause.

The exact number of enslaved men and women who used the Underground Railroad to enter Canada is not known, but perhaps as many as 30,000–40,000 individuals used it. Many made their way through Detroit to end up in Ontario — specifically, Windsor, Fort Erie, Chatham and Owen Sound.

At the festival, stories were shared of great-great-grandfathers and -grandmothers who made it to safety and settled in Owen Sound. Darrel Greene (43) is proud of his great-great-grandfather John “Daddy” Walls, who made it to Owen Sound. Walls had a large family and unfortunately died in a quarry accident.

Memorializing Walls’ and others’ contributions, stones from the quarry were used to build a beautiful cairn to those who risked so much to escape slavery and make the perilous journey to freedom in Canada. Designer Bonita de Matteis gave an interesting presentation explaining the ideas that made the cairn come alive. She also recognized Peter Lemon, an emeritus city official who was instrumental in the cairn’s planning.

Representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the festival were Linda Amour Grant, Uriah Grant, Alex Alexander, Mary Lang, Kathy Laird, James Hindle and John Ireland. They made friends, shared their ancestry stories and became excited about the increased connections made using discoverfreedmen.org.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.