Ontario's Priceville was a small, thriving Black community — until it wasn't
Descendants and historians are working to revive Black history of village in southwestern Ontario
Carolynn and Sylvia Wilson have been on the front lines of preserving and keeping alive Black history in Canada for a good part of their lives.
Born and raised in Collingwood, Ont., where they still live, the sisters are active members of the Heritage Community Church, established 152 years ago in the historically Black working-class district of the southwestern Ontario town.
"We've become a place of refuge," Sylvia said. "A lot of people of colour from different cultures or countries have arrived in Collingwood, and people will say, 'Have you been to the little coloured church?' Well, we're not just a coloured church. We're a beautiful grey brick. But inside, we accept everyone, because we know what it's like not to be accepted."
Carolynn, a jovial 73-year-old retired elementary school and special education teacher, is a few years older, but the bespectacled 67-year-old Sylvia, an artist and music educator, is several inches taller. Warm, vivacious and comfortable in their own skin, the two women exude grace.
The Wilsons see themselves as speakers for the dead, committed to unearthing Black Canadian stories. For decades, they've served as caretakers of the church their ancestors built, and they now own and curate the Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum in nearby Clarksburg.
The museum, founded by the sisters' uncle, Howard Sheffield, in 1990, contains an extensive collection spread over 16 buildings that showcases the history of Black settlers in Grey and Simcoe counties and throughout southwestern Ontario.
The sisters are proud of their family's roots in the region.
"Richard Sheffield, who is our great-grandfather, was born in 1855 here in Collingwood before the town was incorporated," Sylvia said. "We are the seventh generation of direct descendants of Black Canadians in this area."
Some of their family ties are in Priceville, a village of 200 people located on Saugeen Ojibway territory about 60 kilometres southwest of Collingwood, in Grey County. In the 1850s, Priceville was home to a vibrant Black community, but it had all but disappeared by the 1880s. Then, decades later, its Black cemetery was desecrated and its Black history receded farther into the past, forgotten and unacknowledged.
A stop on the Underground Railroad
In the 19th century, Collingwood — like the town of Owen Sound, about 65 kilometres to the west — was a terminus for the Underground Railroad. The secret network, made up of Black, white and Indigenous volunteers, helped between 30,000 and 40,000 formerly enslaved African Americans escape to Canada — where slavery remained legal until Aug. 1, 1834, when it was abolished by the British Empire.
Following the War of 1812, Black veterans who fought with the British were given land grants in Oro Township, near Lake Simcoe, in recognition of their service. Black folks also founded communities across Upper Canada (Ontario), in Amherstburg, Chatham, the Dawn Settlement near Dresden, the Wilberforce Settlement near Lucan and the Elgin Settlement in Buxton.
Between 1820 and 1850, around 1,500 free and formerly enslaved Black people settled in the vast area called the Queen's Bush, which stretched from Waterloo County to Lake Huron. One of the other places in the Queen's Bush that was settled by Black freedom seekers like the Wilsons' great-great-great-great grandfather, James Handy, was Priceville.
"They were coming [to Canada] for hope. But you have to remember, too, Canada had slaves as well," Sylvia Wilson said.
"So, when we think about freedom seekers coming from the American states across the border to the Canadian provinces and that they were free with no more worries or tribulations — not true. Some of the treatment they received here in Canada was harsher than what they received in the northern free states of the United States."
Once-thriving Black community gone
According to the census of 1851, every 50-acre lot along Durham Road in Priceville was settled by a Black family with parents born in the U.S. but most children born in Upper Canada, says Nancy Matthews, chair of the heritage committee of the municipality of Grey Highlands. The road was a key settlement route surveyed in the late 1840s that ran from the eastern edge of Grey County to Lake Huron along what are today highways 4 and 9.
"The 117 Black settlers in the area who had been counted — refugees from slavery or free Loyalists — represented 12 per cent of the total population of Artemesia Township [Grey County]," Matthews said.
But what had been a thriving Black community in the 1850s — full of hope and possibility — was essentially gone by the 1880s. And by the 1930s, any visible trace of a vibrant Black presence in Priceville had been literally plowed over.
So, what happened to the Black folks who had settled in Priceville?
The truth was that even though they may have occupied property in Priceville for decades, the Black settlers didn't own the land and were effectively squatters.
Although they eventually tried to purchase the land they had cleared, cultivated and built homes on, they were denied by Crown land agents. Instead, the properties were assigned to Irish and Scottish newcomers fleeing the catastrophic potato famine, who arrived in the Priceville area in the 1850s, and Black Canadian settlers were forced off the land.
"Irish and Scottish newcomers to Canada who became settlers in Priceville saw how successful these Black people were and knew that no one was going to help these people if they decided they were going to overrun them," said author and historian Elise Harding-Davis, curator emeritus at the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre, now the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, in Amherstburg, Ont., and an authority on Black-Canadian history.
"They were already involved in schemes to undercut them legally through the system of purchase of property. So, who was going to help these people? Because the white people who were already there helped the Irish and Scottish to do that."
As Blacks were being pushed out of Priceville, some decided on their own to leave, pulled by economic opportunities in more prosperous centres, such as Owen Sound and Collingwood.
"Some moved back to the States. Children married. People moved off to other settlements," Carolynn Wilson said.
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Debate over Priceville's namesake
According to Black oral history, Priceville took its name from Colonel Price, a Black Loyalist soldier credited with having founded the settlement who was most likely a private but went by the first name Colonel.
Price brought with him a group of Black settlers, but there's disagreement as to when exactly he arrived — and there have been questions about whether the village is even named after him.
The Wilson sisters think it's plausible that Price and other Black settlers came to the Priceville area as early as the 1820s and 30s.
They note that Black veterans of the War of 1812 who had fought for the British had been granted land in 1815 and established a community in 1819 in Oro, 90 kilometres northeast of Priceville. (The man who granted them that land, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, Lord Peregrine Maitland, would later become known as an early proponent of residential schools.)
Harding-Davis says the timeline makes sense.
"Colonel Price was a veteran of the U.S. War of Independence in 1783," said Harding-Davis, herself a seventh-generation Black Canadian whose ancestors arrived in Canada in 1798.
"There were many Black vets who were in Canada at the time, including John Hall, the founder of the settlement of Owen Sound. It is not inconceivable that they were there (in the Priceville area) as early as 1815."
But Naomi Norquay, who is co-editor of Northern Terminus: The African Canadian History Journal and has spent decades researching the history of Black Canadian settlement in Grey County, doubts Price is the namesake.
Norquay, who is an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto and president of the Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery committee in Priceville, suspects the village took its name from James Hervey Price, who served as commissioner of Crown lands from 1848 to 1851.
"First, it's inconceivable that the British would have named a town after a Black squatter," she said. "Blacks were foot soldiers. He would not have been a colonel."
Norquay notes that Black people could not have settled in the Priceville area until the late 1840s, when Durham Road was finally opened up and surveyed.
Matthews of the Grey Highlands heritage committee agrees.
"There's no way they would have made it through the bush and settled in the area before it was surveyed," Matthews said. "There was nothing there."
But Harding-Davis says it's possible some settlers travelled there by waterway and were already established in the area by the 1840s.
"A lot of these men were scouts," she said. "They had to clear the land and cut the wood. That is not a five-minute situation. It would have taken several years for the town to become established."
Matthews's own analysis, based in part on census data from 1851, suggests there was no truly navigable waterway in the Priceville area at the time.
"Therefore, it seems more likely that the Black settlers came up the Garafraxa Road (now Highway 6), possibly from an earlier Black settlement northeast of Guelph … which started disbanding in the early 1840s," she said.
Historians do agree that the Black settlers who arrived in Priceville were likely skilled in trades such as blacksmithing and farming and received help from the Indigenous people whose land they were settling on and whose hunting trails were the likely template for the route of the Durham Road. Members of the Anishinaabe nation, for example, taught Black settlers how to tend to meadowland for deer hunting, according to research done by historian Peter Meyler.
Most Canadians were introduced to the Priceville story in 2000, when the National Film Board documentary Speakers for the Dead was released.
The film, by Black Canadian filmmakers David (Sudz) Sutherland and Jennifer Holness, shone a light on the desecration of Priceville's Black cemetery and revealed other inconvenient truths.
In addition to the story of the forced removal of the Black community and erasure of its history, one of the chilling tales told in the documentary was that of a white farmer, Bill Reid, who in the 1930s plowed over the Black cemetery on Durham Road — destroying 90 to 100 headstones. After completing the task, Reid planted a patch of potatoes.
Viewers also learned that the broken headstones were used as flooring for a barn, as stepping stones and as bases in baseball games held at the school across from the cemetery.
The film sparked anger among those who saw it, but not necessarily for the same reasons.
The Wilson sisters were devastated.
"They were desecrating our cemetery stones," Carolynn said.
Sylvia called it an outrage and an indictment of Priceville's white inhabitants at the time.
"If a Black person took a tractor and bulldozed over a white cemetery and planted potatoes … what would we say? Would the whole community remain quiet?" she said. "Would we take all the headstones and put them in our basement for decoration? Or play baseball over them? How would the rest of the world view that?"
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A history not known to many
For Priceville residents Doug and Mary Harrison, watching Speakers for the Dead provoked complicated feelings. On the one hand, they were disturbed to learn about the extent of their community's racist past, but they were also troubled at the way in which the village they loved was being maligned.
After raising their family in the Greater Toronto Area, the Harrisons retired in Priceville.
Mary grew up in Priceville and has fond memories of attending its one-room schoolhouse. Her family came to the village in 1870 and never left. Many of her ancestors are buried in a cemetery less than 100 metres from her home.
Doug cuts the lawn at the old Pioneer Cemetery, established by the village's white settlers in 1859, and the newer McNeil Cemetery.
"I'm sort of like the caretaker," he said. "My mother and dad and brother are in that cemetery (McNeil)."
Doug and Mary say they didn't recognize the Priceville shown in Speakers for the Dead.
"Is there any real proof to some of the stories that were said? ... I don't know. We don't know," Doug said.
Mary said the film's depictions of Black residents being forced out were at odds with her image of Priceville.
"I found it hard to think of Priceville being that way," she said. "Growing up, I don't remember hearing any of that story as they told it in Speakers for the Dead. In some ways, I was saddened about it."
She said she was troubled when one of the descendants of the Black settlers, Alan Miller, said in the documentary that Priceville was a scary place for Black people.
"He was sort of implying that it was not a good place to come back to [for Black descendants]," Mary said.
But, she says, in the two decades since the documentary was released, she's had a change of perspective.
"Hearing more of the story, hearing more about the Black pioneers cemetery and reading what [Norquay] has written has opened my eyes."
Hiding Black heritage
Over the decades, the erasure of Priceville's Black past led the remaining descendants of the Black settlers to deny or obscure their bloodlines and try to blend into the white community.
Today, there is still a Black community in Priceville; it's just mostly white.
"There are Black descendants in the Priceville area who aren't Black," said Norquay.
She means people who may "look white" or can pass for white but have Black great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents. Some know about their Black ancestors; others may not.
That phenomenon is not uncommon throughout communities in southwestern Ontario.
"In my own family history, we have Black family, and that wasn't always part of our story," said Rev. Shawn Ankenmann, who runs a coffee shop in Flesherton, not far from Priceville, and is a part-time pastor at the Wilson sisters' church in Collingwood.
"It is now. As a family, we are reclaiming it. I know of a few families in the area where people go, 'Yup, there was probably a Black ancestor there,' but they don't acknowledge it."
Norquay would like to see more transparency around Priceville's Black history but says it's not her place to "out" descendants of the town's original Black inhabitants.
"Descendants of those Black settlers who deny that history are doing their ancestors, and Canada and Canadians, a big disservice," she said.
'Honour that history and lift it up'
In the years since the release of Speakers for the Dead, Norquay has played an increasingly active role alongside other residents in trying to tell the story of Black Canadian settlers.
"The film galvanized me," she said. "Speakers for the Dead is absolutely crucial to Canada's story."
In the years following the film, an annual Black History Month event was launched in the area, thanks to the leadership of the late Les MacKinnon, and the Northern Terminus journal began publishing.
She's currently president of the Old Durham Road Cemetery committee, created in 1989, whose purpose is to "restore the burial ground and register it as a cemetery." The Wilson sisters have been active members of the committee since its inception.
Four headstones from the original cemetery — including two from the graves of the Wilson sisters' ancestors — were eventually recovered from a farmer's field, and a memorial granite boulder was later unveiled by Ontario's first Black lieutenant governor, Lincoln Alexander.
In 2015, the headstones became part of a permanent monument on the site, and five years later, the name was changed to the Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery.
Ankenmann says he would like to see the cemetery become a national heritage site that honours the Black history of Grey County.
"There is an amazing history here," he said. "This was the terminus of the Underground Railway. These people were coming to build a better life. Let's, 175 later, honour that history and lift it up."
A success for a short time
For Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society, Priceville is an example that disrupts the myth of Canada as a welcoming refuge for Black people fleeing slavery.
"Black settlers did find a measure of freedom," she said, "[but] there's a question as to whether it measured up with their vision of freedom."
Harding-Davis says that although short-lived, Priceville was a success for the Black people who settled there.
"These people came from slavery to a foreign land and built a utopia … a wholly functioning community," she said. "They weren't looking for bright lights. They merely wanted to be human.
"So whatever period it was, they were able to have a life that had been foreign to so many of them, a life without menace, a life without the shadow of the whip or the shackle."
In Priceville, they were able to be self-sufficient and work together to build a community, she said, instead of succumbing to the "crab in the barrel" mindset that slavery engendered and that had held back earlier generations. ("Oh, you can't have that. I have to pull you down," is how Harding-Davis explains the phenomenon.)
All the more jarring then, says Harding-Davis, when that life was pulled out from under them by the new white arrivals.
"The feeling must have been, 'Here we go again!'"
For Sylvia Wilson, meanwhile, the pain of still not being able to identify all of her people in what is now the Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery means she cannot rest.
"Unknown. Unmarked. Unnamed. Unfound. What do we do with that?" she said. "You're kind of in limbo. What's the next step? How do we fix that? How do we make it right for them? ... Or do we just go on leaving them there?"
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.