Black History, Our People, Our Community
The Queen’s Bush Settlement and the Guelph Black Heritage Society: Maintaining Rural Black History
January 24, 2024
Just a couple minutes from Guelph’s downtown area stands a historic stone building on 83 Essex Street. The former Guelph British Methodist Church holds a history unknown to many. The special history of the church is connected to another forgotten history of the Guelph and Wellington region, a Black settlement called the Queen’s Bush.
Author Linda Brown Kubisch describes the historic settlement in her 2004 book The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers, 1839-1865. The settlement was established in 1833 on unclaimed and uncleared government-owned land located in what is now the Township of Wellesley in Wellington County. Black free and formerly enslaved peoples cleared the dense forest-covered land and began farming and building a community in an area of abundant rich soil, freshwater, and game. The community consisted of people of African descent from both the United States and Canada who formed lives for themselves at the settlement---building homes, establishing farms, and creating relationships between neighbours. Queen’s Bush settlers lived in small cabins, grew grains like wheat and barley, raised various livestock, and cultivated orchards and gardens. Men in the community also worked as loggers and sold and traded timber and potash. Author Linda Brown Kubisch states that the settlement’s size at the end of the 1830s was 8 by 12 miles (12.8km by 19km) and comprised of a diverse community of both free and formerly enslaved Black and White settlers. This changed in 1842 when an influx of White immigrants, coming to Canada and hoping to purchase inexpensive farmland, started to threaten the inhabitants of the Queen's Bush settlement who had illegally formed homes on government land. Many Queen’s Bush settlers did not have the money to purchase the land they had cleared and created lives on. The government began selling the land to White settlers and the Black families had no other choice but to leave their homes and community in the Queen’s Bush settlement.
Jerry Prager, in Blood in the Mortar – The British Methodist Episcopal Church of Guelph, Ontario: faith, family, community and continuity, discusses how families from the Queen's Bush settlement began dispersing into different communities across Ontario with some finding a home in Guelph. Many settled in the Essex-Nottingham neighbourhood where other Black families resided and where they worked as labourers and tradesmen in the tannery and Guelph Brewery located nearby. It was there, on Essex Street, that the Black community established the Guelph British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880. Many of the original settlers of the Queen’s Bush had been members of the African Episcopal Church. In Canada, in 1856, members of the African Episcopal Church formed the British Methodist Episcopal Church to distinguish themselves from their American counterparts and to recognize their work and settlement on British land. In historian Melba Jewell’s 2006 work for the Guelph Historical Society, she discusses about how important the British Methodist Episcopal Church became for Guelph’s Black community by addressing specific faith and community needs. In Melba’s essay “Recollections of the BME Church in Guelph: 83 Essex Street”, she states that the church in Guelph operated from 1880 until 1975 when the congregation was too small to support it. Then in 1994 a new congregation was formed which worshipped together until 2009. In 2011, the church was bought by the Guelph Black Heritage Society.
The British Methodist Episcopal Church of Guelph is now known as Heritage Hall. The Guelph Black Heritage Society’s mission is to preserve the British Methodist Episcopal Church as well as highlight its historical relevance within Ontario's Black history. The Guelph Black Heritage Society runs tours of Heritage Hall where visitors can learn and see more history about the church and look at featured collections like the Underground Railroad depicted in a mosaic tile art display and the Flora Blizzard Francis Library of Black Literature. They also host regular events throughout the year for the community, including workshops, classes, camps, and special events during Black History Month and Emancipation Day. The Guelph Black Heritage Society just celebrated another successful annual Caribbean Christmas Dinner and Dance. Which included a DJ, dance performances, and Caribbean food. The Guelph Black Heritage Society continues to provide a space for the Black community to flourish and an opportunity for Guelph and Wellington County’s rich Black history to be honoured and continue.