New Brunswick

Before Willie O'Ree: New Brunswick's surprising black history contributions

Black history month may be officially over, but members of the New Brunswick Black History Society are still busy giving talks and tours. Here are but a few of the highlights.

Founder of a nation, trailblazers of tolerance and chartered racism in Canada's oldest city

Ralph Thomas grew up in Willow Grove, a community on the outskirts of Saint John that was settled by black refugees after the War of 1812. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC )

Black history month may be officially over, but members of the New Brunswick Black History Society are still busy giving talks and tours.

"We've got to go into March now in order to finish," said the group's projects coordinator Ralph Thomas.

By the time they are through, Thomas and a colleague from PRUDE Inc., which stands for Pride of Race, Unity and Dignity through Education, will have done about 40 different presentations for schools, businesses and churches since the beginning of February.

"Everybody is so excited about getting involved," Thomas said.

"It's rewarding. And it's time. Because nobody has ever talked about black history in my time."

So, what are all those presentations about?

Well, it goes back a lot further than Fredericton's Willie O'Ree being the first black man in the National Hockey League.

Here are but a few of the highlights:


About 3,300 black loyalists arrived in Saint John in the mid-1780s, after the American Revolutionary War.

They had been promised land grants in exchange for their service in the British army.

When that land didn't materialize, many left.

Founder of Sierra Leone

A leader among the black loyalists, Thomas Peters petitioned colonial officials for several years on behalf of his people, before joining forces with a British company working to establish a colony of free blacks in Africa.

Peters helped recruit 17 boatloads of people who migrated from the Maritimes to Africa in 1792.

He is considered one of the founders of the nation of Sierra Leone.

His son, John Peters remained in the Maritimes, where his descendants mingled with Acadians and Indigenous people.

David Peters of Saint John holds up a picture of a bronze statue of his ancestor, Thomas Peters, erected in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 2011. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

No slave owners allowed

The New Brunswick community of Beaver Harbour was settled by Quaker loyalists.

It was the first place in British North America, in 1783, to declare that slave owners were not welcome there.

The tiny fishing community near Blacks Harbour now has a stone monument to mark that distinction and a replica of the community's Quaker meeting house stands in the Beaver Harbour Quaker burial ground.

War of 1812

After the War of 1812, 371 black refugees — former slaves, travelled to Saint John on HMS Regulus. It arrived on May 25, 1815.

Willow Grove

Willow Grove is one of the communities outside Saint John settled by black refugees who arrived after the war of 1812.

A large white cross at the corner of Base Road and St. Martins Road marks the community, a burial ground and a former church. 

It's "probably ... the biggest marking to show that black folks were here," according to Thomas.

The land was far from the city and far from fertile.

"You couldn't grow rocks on it," said Thomas.

A white cross marks the site of the early black settlement of Willow Grove, east of Saint John. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

Institutionalized racism

The first charter of the City of Saint John, in 1785, said "blacks couldn't live in the city, they couldn't vote, they couldn't own a business in the city, they couldn't sell their goods in the city … and if they got caught fishing in the Saint John Harbour, they'd go to prison," said historian David Peters, great-great-great grandson of Thomas Peters, adding, that charter only officially changed at the time of Confederation.

Gordon House

Gordon House, located at the King's Landing Historical Settlement tourist park, is a replica of a house built by black New Brunswicker James Gordon in the nineteenth century on Dunn's Crossing Road in Fredericton. 

Gordon is believed to be the child of black loyalists or slaves who came with white loyalists.

Tomlinson Lake

This rural area near the American border and Perth-Andover is believed to be the northernmost route on the Underground Railroad, by which people escaped slavery in the United States to freedom in Canada.

Guided hikes take place each fall on a 2.5-km trail in Carlingford.

Cornelius Sparrow

A pioneer of Saint John's business community, Cornelius Sparrow escaped slavery before he became a successful trader and entrepreneur in Uptown Saint John in the mid-1800s.

The Admiral Beatty

Formerly a posh hotel in Uptown Saint John, The Admiral Beatty didn't allow blacks to use the front door, until a protest by Lena O'Ree in the 1950s.

Still searching for a home in N.B.

Thomas would like to see more of the province's black history uncovered, and he'd like to see all of it enshrined in a heritage centre or room in one or more New Brunswick cities.

"It's gotta be the black people doing it — showing interest. 

"But you know what? The moment you talk about history, everybody comes on board - black folks, white folks. 

"It's our history, isn't it? … Loyalists came, refugees came and we were a part of it."