Honouring a legacy: Emancipation Day returns to Lakeside Park in St. Catharines

The FirstOntario Performing Arts Center is once again partnering with the city of St. Catharines, Matter of Black, and Blackowned905 for Emancipation Day celebrations.

St. Catharines resident Natasha Bell remembers attending the big Emancipation Day picnic at Lakeside Park as a kid.

Her grandmother, Ruth Harper Bell, was one of the event’s organizers.

“This event was always something that my family looked forward to attending, and it’s one of my fondest memories as a child,” she said. “It was the best thing to me. You got to see all your cousins. You got to see family and friends that you only see maybe one time of year, and we loved that.”

Now, Bell, founder of Blackowned905, is continuing the legacy.

In celebration of Emancipation Day, Matter of Black and Blackowned905 are hosting a four-day weekend of events in St. Catharines.

It all kicks off July 29, with a flag raising at St. Catharines city hall at 2 pm Organizers from Matter of Black, and Blacklowned905 will be there, along with officials from the FirstOntario Performing Arts Center, and the City of St. Catharines.

On July 30, Blackowned905 will have its market as part of the Downtown Promenade on St. Paul and Carlisle streets from 4 to 9 pm At 5 pm, musician Shad will be performing at the Promenade. Just after dusk, the film ‘Summer of Soul’ will be screened in the backyard of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre.

The next day, Sunday, July 31, is an open house at the Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church from 12 to 4 pm At 2 pm, church historian and trustee Rochelle Bush will lead a tour talk.

On Emancipation Day, Aug. 1, Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie will once again be home to the festivities. From 10 am to dusk, the park will see live entertainment, food, and activities.

“It feels great that we can finally be back in person,” said Bell. “It was two years of putting this together online with hopes of maybe getting outside again, but then… last minute there were changes with different COVID-19 guidelines. So we’ve had two successful years online, but being outside just really makes me feel happy. I know my grandmother always put a lot of work into putting on the picnic, and it feels great to be able to do this again.”

Erika Smith, who is a co-founder of Matter of Black, said it’s important to celebrate St. Catharines’ rich black history.

“We’ve had this tradition of celebrating Emancipation Day within the black community for decades since (the co-founders of Matter of Black) are all descendants of freedom seekers,” she said. “Since our ancestors followed the Underground Railroad to freedom and settled in the St. Catharines area and Niagara region, this Emancipation Day celebration has been going on. But now to have the opportunity to make it bigger and let the broader community know about it and come celebrate and learn, it’s just an incredible opportunity.”

She said they were inspired to bring Emancipation Day events back following the protests that were happening in 2020 in support of Black Lives Matter.

“Originally we were going to organize a peaceful demonstration in downtown St Catharines,” she said. “When we reached out to the greatest for his support of him, he said, you know, that’s a one-day event. That’s one thing. What if you guys brought back Emancipation Day and brought it to the community of St Catharines? … It was one of those aha moments where it’s like, ‘Yes, this is perfect.’ Let’s shed some more light on this and get the community involved.”

From 1924 to the early 1970s, as many as 8,000 people would gather in Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie for the “Big Picnic” on the first Thursday of August.

Although Canada abolished slavery in 1834, 2021 marked the first time Emancipation Day, Aug. 1, was a federal holiday.

To see the full list of events, visit Matter of Black or Blackowned905 on Facebook. All events are free to attend.

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