New walking tour teaches Kitchener's forgotten Black history

Black Presence in Berlin is a new walking tour in downtown Kitchener that hopes to educate people on some of Waterloo Region's Black history. CBC Kitchener-Waterloo joined organizers Peggy Plet and Juanita Metzger for a tour.

'It's a part of our Waterloo region history that is missing,' says Juanita Metzger

Peggy Plet points to the windows above the Coffee Culture in downtown Kitchener. She said Louis Armstrong use to play his trumpet from the balcony when he visited the area in 1953. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

A new walking tour in downtown Kitchener wants to teach people about some of the the city's forgotten Black history.

Black Presence in Berlin is being run by Stroll Walking Tours in honour of Black History Month.

Tour company owner Juanita Metzger and Peggy Plet — who did the research for the specialized tour — say they hope to restore and preserve the contributions Black settlers had in early Kitchener, which then would have been known as Berlin.

"It's a part of our Waterloo region history that is missing in the telling of how this community was formed and who was here in the 19th century," Metzger told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

Plet said extensive research went into the project and it was "quite a challenge" looking through old directories to track down former Black residents and their stories — partly because little remains of the original structures.

Ultimately, Plet hopes people who take the tour discover a deeper connection to their community and learn more about downtown Kitchener's rich Black history.

New walking tour highlights Black history in downtown Kitchener

1 year ago
Duration 1:11
A new walking tour, launched this month by Stroll Walking Tours, is led by Peggy Plet and it highlights Black history in downtown Kitchener.

"Former Black residents walked the same streets I am walking on today and that is very exciting," Plet said. "After all, this is part of local history. It's not separate history."

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo joined Plets and Mertzer on a mini-tour, to learn more about three sites on King Street.

The North American Hotel

Across the street of the CBC Kitchener-Waterloo station used to be the location of the North American Hotel. It was a gathering place for many in the Black community during the early 1900s. Now, a condo building is being built there. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

Emancipation Day celebrations and events use to be held at the former North American Hotel, just across from the CBC Kitchener-Waterloo station.

Today, a condo building is being built there, but Plet said back in the early 1900s, many would make the trip to downtown to celebrate.

"People would come out to Kitchener to celebrate Emancipation Day, a remarkable day in Black history," she said.

The Walper Hotel

This mural, on the Hall's Lane side of the Walper Hotel in downtown Kitchener, pays tribute to Louis Armstrong's time in Kitchener in 1953. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

In 1953, the sound of Louis Armstrong's trumpet could be heard through downtown Kitchener. He stayed at the Walper Hotel that year. 

"There use to be a balcony right above the Coffee Culture sign," said Plet, pointing to the windows above where Coffee Culture is now located on the corner of Queen and King streets. 

"He performed at the Auditorium and at night he use to play his trumpet from the balcony."

Behind the Walper Hotel, you can see an old painting of Louis Armstrong — a tribute to this moment in the city's history.

Near TheMuseum

This stretch of King Street was believed to be the location of a barber shop and a coffee shop owned by entrepreneur, Peter E. Susand. (Carmen Groleau/ CBC)

On a stretch of King Street between Ontario and Queen near TheMuseum, is believed to be the location of several businesses formerly owned by Black entrepreneur, Peter E. Susand, Plet said.

"It would have been the site where [Susand] would have had his barber shop in 1861," she said, adding that Susand also owned a coffee shop on the same stretch of King Street.

Plet said lawyer, Robert Sutherland, also had an office in that block of King Street. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.