Upper Canada Village set to welcome students for Black History learning

Black History of Upper Canada on display – The Black History exhibit at Upper Canada Village aims to tell diverse stories of Black Canadians throughout Upper Canada’s history, using artifacts, archival documents, individual and family stories, excerpts from oral histories, newspaper accounts and photographs to illustrate their contributions. The exhibit features select objects to elevate stories that speak to Black liberation and social equality, such as a period barber chair, representing entrepreneurial success and community contribution. Last week Julian Whittam (left) Coordinator of Interpretation at Upper Canada Village and Milton Kooistra, Research and Training Officer for Interpretation spoke about its creation and importance. (The Leader/Comfort photo)

MORRISBURG – As part of ongoing Black History Month activities and initiatives students from Seaway District High School and Morrisburg Public School will travel to Upper Canada Village to take part in a pilot project to learn about the historical contributions made by people of colour in our communities.

What they will see when they get there is the culmination of years of work to gather information and tell the untold history of this area’s Black population.

Last week Milton Kooistra, Research and Training Officer for Interpretation and Julian Whittam, Coordinator of Interpretation at Upper Canada Village met with The Leader to talk about their findings and the creation of the new permanent exhibit at Crysler Hall.

Whittam explained that work on this Black history project began years ago.

It started in response to guests submitting inquiries/criticisms about the underrepresentation of black history at the Village. Whittam reached out to them to start this process and many of them became community advisors, helping to shape the exhibit and share the stories with authenticity, sensitivity and pride.

“It was really important for us to have their input,” said Whittam.

A small working group of these community advisors in consultation with their various networks were essential in ensuring that this research and resulting exhibits and programming are done “in a way that people from the Black community feel a part of it.”

As lead researcher on this project Kooistra aimed to explain the broader trends using local examples.

“It was important to us to keep Eastern Ontario as the focus,” said Kooistra.

A page-by-page review of historic census data was how Kooistra identified who the Black people were. The St. Lawrence Valley in the 1860s had a Black population of 200, four of whom resided in Dundas County.

Kooistra cross-referenced the names in the census with newspaper archives to learn about the roles, lives and connections of the Black population in the community.

“For example, I found that Iroquois had a Black barber, and that there was a Black blacksmith in Morrisburg,” said Kooistra.

The exhibit at Crysler Hall shares the context of the area’s Black population and tells the personal stories of some of the prominent Black figures who helped shape the Upper Canada region. Visitors to the exhibit will learn interesting stories of Black individuals uncovered highlighting their significant impact, benefitting not only the Black community but the entire region.

Whittam and Kooista both see the work that’s been done so far as just the beginning.

Whittam explained that with what they have learned they can now integrate that information into every part of the Upper Canada Village for interpreters to share with guests. “The interpreters will now have these interesting nuggets,” he said.

Kooistra hopes that as visitors read the stories and learn about the individuals featured in the exhibit that more connections will be discovered to pursue. “I hope more material will surface,” he said, adding that the exhibit can always be updated.

“Our hope for this exhibit is that it will serve as a foundational building block for broader, long-term conversations about the rich tapestry of Black history, an integral part of history,” said Heather Kearney, Manager of Guest Relations and Corporate Communications.

Gathering feedback from the Black community will continue to play an important role in this effort.

Also, the pilot project presentation for students will be followed by gathering feedback from the students and educators.

“We want to make sure we’re doing this right,” said Whittam.

The exhibit and its potential to bring in special events, speakers and programming may well become an important resource and educational destination.

Last week the Ontario government announced that starting in September 2025, Grades 7, 8 and 10 history classes will include mandatory learning with emphasis on elevating Black history as Canadian history, by highlighting the various Black communities that emerged, developed and contributed to the development of Canada including pre- and post-Confederation.

Over the next year, the Ministry of Education will consult with historians, educators and the Black community, which will inform the new learning.

“Black history is Canadian history,” said Stephen Lecce, Ministry of Education, in a February 8 media release. “By mandating learning on the contributions Black individuals made to our country’s founding and success, the next generation of Canadians will better appreciate the sacrifice, patriotic commitment and long-lasting contributions Black Canadians have made to Canada.”

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