Walking tour sheds light on Kitchener’s Black history

‘Black Presence in Berlin’ is a historical walking tour through Kitchener’s downtown

After a journey spanning three continents, I made Kitchener my chosen home in 2017. I was born in Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America. My family immigrated to the Netherlands in 1980 and then, after twenty-seven years in Europe, I relocated to Kitchener, Ontario. It was a bold move, as we had never been to Canada before and knew nothing about Kitchener. 

Of all the cities in Waterloo Region, Kitchener — formerly named Berlin — has the strongest roots to German Mennonite heritage. Despite my familiarity with German culture, I found it difficult to identify with it in Kitchener. The dominant and celebrated narrative of white German settlers who built this city left little room for any other histories.  I often wondered when Black people first set foot in Kitchener. Long-time Black residents told me that Black people first arrived in the 1960s and 1970s. 

However, I uncovered a very different story through my own research and community involvement. I learned about the Queen’s Bush settlement, a community of formerly enslaved people who lived in Waterloo region between 1839 and 1865. I read about Levi Carroll, one of Kitchener’s first Black residents, and Peter Susand, an entrepreneur and the first Black person to run for office as a councillor in Kitchener. Despite learning more about local Black history, for some reason I still struggled to feel connected to the city.

This changed last summer when I was asked by Juanita Metzger, owner of Stroll Walking Tours, to help develop a Black history walking tour for Kitchener. I had been researching slavery and Black history for more than a decade prior to moving to Canada, so this was an ideal use of my skills and expertise. Our research for this tour brought out familiar stories, a few surprises, and many interesting questions. For instance, we wondered why some of the Black stories we unearthed were lost or omitted from Kitchener’s history. Who determines which stories are important to preserve? How was it that other Black residents didn’t know these stories? And finally, what can we do to prevent the erasure of Black histories from happening again? 

The walking tour, which we have called Black Presence in Berlin, made me view the city differently. It was powerful to realize that 200 years ago, Black people walked the same streets in downtown Kitchener that I walk today on my way to work. The walk also shows that unlike other buildings that have been preserved for historical purposes, the buildings that housed former Black residents and businesses have all been demolished, their stories buried under the rubble of city development. Researching and visiting these sites made me understand that my sense of disconnect to the city had to do with the absence of physical historical references of Kitchener’s early Black residents. 

The main focus of the walking tour is on the early Black residents of Kitchener, but naturally our history does not end there.  Black history is ongoing — topics such as immigration to this region, local Black organizations, Black activism and culture are all part of a more recent history. The absence of preserved Black history reveals how Kitchener’s narratives are neither inclusive nor complete. When Black histories are obscured or erased, all current residents are robbed of important histories. Black stories are part of the tapestry of Kitchener and therefore deserve to be incorporated, treated, narrated and preserved as the rest. 

The Black Presence in Berlin walking tour will be offered on four dates in February, during Black History month. The walk is 60 minutes long. Pre-registration is required. Walks offered in the spring, summer and fall will follow a 90-minute route when the weather is more conducive for strolling about the city. 

Black Presence in Berlin acknowledges that history is made up of different narratives from different perspectives. The walks are an invitation to re-learn about our common past. 

Peggy Plet is a researcher/writer on Black history. She is the author of the biography of American-Surinamese inventor Jan Earnst Matzeliger.

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