Our People, Black History, Our Community
Rural Community Connections in the Life of Dorothy Wright-Wallace
Curated by Sawyer Thompson-Brown
July 3, 2023
The Chatham-Kent area consists of two parts: Chatham Township, home to many Black farmers and farm labourers; and the City of Chatham. The Wright family and their daughter Dorothy Wright-Wallace experienced the two contrasting areas. Their story shows a consistent connection with farming and the Black rural community in Chatham. Dorothy has been surrounded by rural community connections, farming and gardening all her life, and they continued to be part of her life when her family moved from the township into the City of Chatham.
Dorothy’s great grandmother’s and great grandfather's journeys to Canada are documented in family history and travel records housed in Chatham. Her mother’s family, the Carmichael’s, were from Pennsylvania. Dorothy’s grandmother who was white and her grandfather who was Black moved to Michigan fleeing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, eventually making their way to Canada. The Wrights, Dorothy’s father’s family, came to Canada from Delaware, changing their name from Harmon to Wright. Dorothy suspects this name change was because the name Harmon was that of a previous slaveholder. Dorothy’s parents, Arthur Wright and Margaret Snooks, were born in Canada, were married in 1921, and had nine children together. Dorothy’s family history is an important connection for her. Dorothy states, “There’s something about getting that information that makes me understand who I am and why I am who I am, answers a lot of questions.”
The Wrights lived in Chatham Township and rented a small house on a farmer’s land surrounded by both Black and white farming families who owned large lots of land and grew crops like wheat, sugar beets, corn, soybeans, and raised animals such as pigs, cows, ducks, turkeys, and hunting dogs. Dorothy’s father, a First World War veteran, was a farm labourer who plowed the farms of others and worked in their fields blocking or thinning sugar beets and picking tomatoes.
Dorothy’s mother also blocked sugar beets and picked tomatoes when she could. She is remembered for the pies she made during threshing season in the summer. The Black rural community of Chatham Township would gather then; the men threshed the wheat and oats and the women cooked lunch and dinner. Dorothy’s mother oversaw the pies, making upwards of thirteen pies varying from peach to berry for the men to eat during breaks.
Dorothy’s family moved into the City of Chatham after their house burned down between approximately 1938-1940 and the family lost everything. Even after Dorothy was born in 1943 in the city, her family-maintained a connection with family and friends who lived in the country, visiting when they could. Dorothy’s aunt Mary and her husband Jim owned a farm in Chatham Township growing wheat, corn, and beets. Dorothy’s grandmother raised turkeys and her brother-in-law also came from a Black family with farmland. Dorothy’s family couldn’t always visit often, but she remembers the large family gatherings for funerals. During the funeral reception, food would be served and the Wright family and their extended family, from both the US and Canada, would gather before heading back home.
Dorothy recalls a farmer who would bring his fresh vegetables into the City of Chatham on a horse- drawn wagon and drive around the neighborhood selling his produce, with the women in the neighborhood coming out of their houses to purchase his goods. She also spent time at a family friend’s property, Allan Vandusen, who had an acre of land just on the outskirts of the city. Allan had ducks, chickens, and hunting dogs and would help pick dandelions from the fields. In the neighbourhood where Dorothy grew up, she recalls Guinea fowls running around and neighbours who had small numbers of animals such as pigs and cows. The large lots of the area allowed families to keep gardens and animals. Horses were also common with alleyways made specifically for them where they could stand. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for her parents to come home with a chicken, butcher it and tell young Dorothy to find it once it stopped fluttering. “That’s the kind of upbringing I had,” says Dorothy, “farming was always very important and has always been a part of who I am.”
When Dorothy married her husband Wyatt Wallace at the age of eighteen, the pair continued to combine city and rural living. They had two children who they raised in the City of Chatham. Wyatt, who had grown up in the rural town of Dresden, had worked on farms throughout his life. At their home in Chatham, Wyatt kept a large square garden in their backyard full of 42 to 43 squares of vegetables: onions, beets, Swiss chard, squash, watermelons, and tomatoes. Having a backyard garden was common for the Black Community in the east end of Chatham; the traditions of farming continued through the generations with families growing potatoes, greens, lettuces, and more. Even though Wyatt was a lab director at the city’s hospital, he continued his connection with rural life when he was asked to sample a well-known racehorse’s blood suspected of being poisoned in the 1970s. He took the sample to assess it and discovered the horse had been drugged. After that Wyatt would occasionally take blood samples from other farm animals into the lab for testing.
Dorothy, now a proud grandmother, is the current President of the thriving Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. She felt a need to help her community and stepped in to revive the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society when it was on the verge of collapse. She works to preserve and educate people on the rich urban and rural history of the Chatham-Kent community, a community that Dorothy loves and one that has always loved her.