ORO-MEDONTE - A small rural church, just a few feet from the roadside, was the setting to mark a special occasion dating back two centuries on Thursday.
It was 200 years ago that blacks were granted acres of farmland to settle upon, to farm and be free in the rolling fields of Oro-Medonte Township, not far from the shores of Lake Simcoe.
Located at Line 3 North and Old Barrie Road West, between Barrie and Orillia, the Oro African Episcopal Methodist Church was built between 1846 and 1849, as part of the only government-sponsored black settlement in Canadian history.
The log structure, which has undergone significant work in recent years, is a designated National Historic Site and is believed to be the last church of its kind still standing in North America.
It was within these walls that black settlers embarked on a new life after breaking free from the shackles of slavery.
In two waves between 1819 and 1831, black settlement along 'Wilberforce Street' — whose name recognized British parliamentarian William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in the emancipation of all slaves — was sponsored by the government of Upper Canada. Many of them were veterans of the War of 1812.
Local historian Tim Crawford detailed the church's history and what it has meant to the township over several generations.
"This church is a wonderful symbol of celebration," he said, noting the black settlement covered a wide area stretching over several concession roads. "It was the first time in the history of the world where a major power organized and set aside farming land for blacks 200 years ago.
"This was before the British passed the Emancipation Act and it was truly a world first," Crawford added. "What other country in the world granted blacks farming land of at least 100 acres? It was quite remarkable."
Oro-Medonte residents should be "very proud" to have such a rich history in their township, Crawford said.
The land grants stretched from Lake Simcoe up to the Craighurst area, and as far as Georgian Bay if there were enough blacks to settle the area.
"They were not," Crawford said, so the Wilberforce settlement remained focused on one area.
"I've estimated that they had planned to grant blacks, if needed, 40,000 acres of land. This church is also a symbol of that farming settlement that we're honouring today and is somewhat nebulous, because it just looks like farmland. But it's a profound representation of a glorious heritage that we received from the British 200 years ago this very year," said Crawford.
The church is open every Saturday during the summer, with interpreters on hand to guide people through its history.
Although the church has limited hours that it's open to the public, anyone who stops by can now access a special app detailing its deep history and what it has meant to the community.
The doors will be open at the Oro African Episcopal Methodist Church on Sunday from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. There will also be a special service in Shanty Bay at 10 a.m.
For Brampton resident Nadine Williams, a poet and author who emigrated from Jamaica at the age of 15, it was her first time visiting the site Thursday and she spoke about what it means to people.
"It evokes a lot of emotion in the sense that, you think of the long drive coming into here," she said. "We were driving and it felt long. Those people would've been walking and walking for a very, very long time, on that hot and hard road to travel and a mighty long way to travel.
"For them to have this safe space where they can worship... this thing that helps us go on and give us hope," Williams added.
"This represents hope."
Williams says it's important to make those international connections.
"Anything do to with black history, you'll find me there because it's important to preserve the history and it's important for us to celebrate," she said. "And it's not just for black people; it's a Canadian thing and it's worldwide in terms of, historically, what has transpired."
Oro-Medonte Township Mayor Harry Hughes noted the word 'Oro' honours an area of Africa known as Rio de Oro, where it is believed a number of the settlers came from.
Hughes urged people to embrace the significance of the day, noting it was 200 years ago that all black residents of Upper Canada (now Ontario) were declared free and protected by British law.
"Today, we're not just celebrating that document, but what it stands for," Hughes said. "We are celebrating diversity and we're aware of the strength diversity brings to us. In fact, if you'd been around Oro-Medonte when it was settled, having the different nationalities here meant a lot to the settlers.
"Regardless of their ethnic background, they tell me they would never have survived without working together."
Despite some of the racial strife happening in the world, "particularly south of the border, we really pride ourselves on being an inclusive community," Hughes added.
The mayor noted that the 200-year-old legislation was more than just simple land grants.
"It meant that they were actually free people," he said, meaning they had the ability to vote and worship on their own terms. "The blacks built this church on their own so they could worship on their own."
Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MPP Doug Downey noted that, in 1793, Upper Canada's first lieutenant-governor, John Graves Simcoe, passed an Act banning slavery.
"Unfortunately, it didn't eradicate slavery, but it certainly put a stop to people coming into our area as slaves," Downey said. "It all comes down to this building and those movements that brought us to the celebration of emancipation."
Simcoe North MP Bruce Stanton noted Emancipation Day, which was declared in Ontario in 2008, celebrates "the incredible touchstones that we have here in this part of Oro-Medonte that recognize the black people who form part of our community in those very, very early days."
For the local settlement, many of those early residents arrived via the Underground Railroad.
"We're proud to have this national historic site right in our community of Oro-Medonte," the MP said. "It symbolizes that part of our history and thank goodness we keep these monuments, relics if you will, that remind of us and pique the curiosity of today's generation, to know and understand what our history's about."
Downey said black people settling in this area is a microcosm of what happened across Canada, "where people are welcome and people can thrive. And it's not easy; I can't imagine having to farm in this area back in those days. This was not a life, but they clearly made a life of it."
Simcoe County Warden George Cornell said the setting was not lost on him and what the church represents.
"This is something that we do not ever want to lose within the county and certainly within Oro-Medonte," said Cornell, who characterized the church as "a tremendous community and cultural landmark."
"It demonstrates our diversity, acceptance and inclusion," the warden added.
The Oro African Church has been jeopardized a few times over the decades, including being struck by vehicles.
When the church was "on the verge of disappearing from the landscape back in the 1940s," Hughes said Simcoe County, Oro-Medonte Township and community groups made sure that didn't happen.
These same forces united had a "rallying cry" a few years ago when it appeared the church could collapse due to heavy snowfall.