Longtime Buxton Museum curator, filmmakers receive Ontario Heritage Award for work preserving Black history

A longtime museum curator and a group of local filmmakers are being honoured for their work in preserving the history of the Underground Railroad in southwestern Ontario.

Shannon Prince awarded for her 'defining contributions' since taking the role in 1999

The importance of knowing Black history is Canadian history

2 years ago
Duration 0:30
Shannon Prince, curator of the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, received the Thomas Symons Award for Commitment to Conservation. She comments on the importance of Black history to all Canadians.

A longtime museum curator and a group of local filmmakers are being honoured for their work in preserving the history of the Underground Railroad in southwestern Ontario.

Shannon Prince, curator of the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, received the Thomas Symons Award for Commitment to Conservation, given yearly to individuals "who have made defining contributions to heritage conservation throughout their professional careers."

Prince told CBC News she was "shocked" when she learned she would be awarded. 

"I don't see myself as someone who does that. I guess I just love what I do — sharing that invaluable history and sharing those incredible stories of those amazing people that escaped and made Canada, freedom in Canada," she said. 

"To me, I'm honoured, I'm humbled, but I owe it all to those those true trailblazers who have paved the way for me. So it is in their honour that I'm doing it."

Shannon Prince has been given the Thomas Symons Award for Commitment to Conservation for her ongoing work as curator of the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum. (Ontario Heritage Trust)

Prince has lived in the small community of North Buxton her entire life, but joined the museum in 1999. Prince said her husband Brian, an avid historian, encouraged her to get involved and take the position as curator. 

The Buxton site commemorates the Elgin Settlement, founded in 1849 by Rev. William King and 15 former enslaved people. It was a settling place for many people escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad. 

"I knew a snippet. I knew the bare bones of the history, but I didn't know that broader story," said Prince, speaking of the time when she first started. 

"But because he felt that I would be able to share those stories with people and because I'm a descendant, and I would learn, and I did."

After more than 22 years working as the museum's curator, Prince said she still has a lot to learn. 

The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum in North Buxton, Ont., includes a cabin filled with artefacts and a schoolhouse. Buxton was once a bustling settlement for Black Canadians in its early years during the 1850s. (

"When people come through that museum, I'm learning continuously because everybody has an incredible story to tell and share," said Prince. 

"It's a magnificent story that we all share. So I'm acquiring new skills and knowledge daily from them. So it's a continual growing and learning curve, if you will. It really has enriched my life since I've been here."

Sandwich Towne's Underground Railroad history

The documentary film The North Was Our Canaan: Exploring Sandwich Town's Underground Railroad History — which was produced by Irene Moore Davis and Heidi L.M. Jacobs, and directed by Anushray Singh — received the Lieutenant Governor's Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation.

The film is part of a project that aims to tell and preserve the stories of formerly enslaved people as they sought freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad. 

Moore Davis said Jacobs approached her about creating the film and documenting the area's history, after Jacobs attended a talk Moore Davis was giving.

"She had this idea that maybe we should put together a short documentary to address some of the knowledge gaps around those historical figures and just about the significance that Sandwich played in the Underground Railroad movement in the anti-slavery movement," said Moore Davis. 

WATCH | Long-overdue stories of Canadian history need to be taught in classrooms: 

Long overdue stories of Canada's history needs to be told, says Irene Moore Davis

2 years ago
Duration 0:34
Irene Moore Davis, president of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society and executive co-producer of The North Was Our Canaan says histories of Canadian minorities need to be told and included in school curriculums.

Moore Davis said she was "thrilled" by the film's latest accolade, but the team behind the documentary is also happy to see the film used in classrooms. 

"One of the things that I find most satisfying about this short documentary and the way it's been received is that so many teachers and students are using it," she said. 

"We get this feedback all the time of how it's being brought into classrooms, virtual and face to face, and used as a starting point for these important discussions, and used as the basis for lesson plans. We're thrilled about that and we want to see more of that."

The film was made in a short time on a $5,000 budget, granted by the University of Windsor. 

It's available through the university's Leddy Library for free, along with other resources and information that can be used in classrooms. 

The team's next documentary, Across the River to Freedom, will be released in June. 

This year's Ontario Heritage Award recipients were honoured during a virtual ceremony last month. 

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.

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Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)