Black History Month is a time to celebrate the legacy of Black Canadians in our community. However, it can be a difficult task when these community members have not always been given opportunities for representation.  Agency is a term many historians, and sociologists, come across when researching people – both individuals and groups. In terms of people, it means to look at their ability to take action and make their own free choices. In a sense, it is how people express their power. Different factors, such as ethnicity, can affect people’s agency.

Museums in areas with smaller Black communities may have trouble presenting the lives of those who helped shape the community. As we mentioned in our previous Black History Month blog post, Black communities in Niagara grew, especially during the 1850s due to the Fugitive Slave Law in the United States which allowed bounty hunters to search the Northern States and return runaway slaves. Programs were started in Niagara to support those who came to live in the area. Although they were free from slavery, they did not escape prejudice, racism, or discrimination here in Canada. These communities faced violence, had difficulty securing jobs, weren’t able to fully participate socially, and much more. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, many returned to the United States to support the Northern Union. Black communities in all of Niagara shrank considerably in size.

Welland was home to a small Black community throughout the area’s development. Jim Wilson, featured in our last blog post, was an escaped slave who lived in Welland for many years and started a family here. Mr. Wilson did not return to the United States, and was interviewed by the Welland Tribune in the early 1900s due to his notable life story. The fact that he stayed in the area and was here to be featured in the newspaper is the only reason we have as much information about Mr. Wilson as we do.

Mr. Wilson and other Black community members were also mentioned in passing in letters from their employers at the McCabe House. Unfortunately, those community members were never mentioned by name, and we do not have a list of these employees. One of Mr. Wilson’s children, William “Billy” Wilson, was noted in Welland’s history as he became a master mechanic working for the Robertson Machinery Company. He opened his own machine and general repair shop on North Main Street in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, his shop was not listed in City directories at the time so it isn’t possible to follow his shop’s history.

There are many other examples of gaps in Black history due to the lack of physical resources and stories. Important Black leaders and community builders were not always noted in print and their history has faded as families moved away from the area, effectively cutting off the ability to carry on their oral histories as well. Although the Welland Museum has pieces of research and photographs featuring Black teachers, business owners, politically minded community members, and more – the information is minimal and often came with a focus on others in the photograph or information. To ensure we preserve this history for the future we need help from our community. If you have any items, photographs, research, information, or family stories to share with us to celebrate Black community members please reach out and leave us a message at 905-731-2215 ext. 2775 or email us at info@wellandmuseum.ca.