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Emancipation Day Picnic

The Big Picnic

Forty years ago, everyone would have understood the significance of the first Thursday of every August.

Lois Gaskinne Wade at the 1941 Emancipation Day Picnic

Group of friends at 1941 Emancipation Day Picnic














It was the date of the annual Emancipation Day Picnic, an event that is said to have rivalled only Christmas as the highpoint in the lives of Black Canadians living in the Niagara region.

And from 1924 until the early 1970s, as many as 8,000 people could be expected to converge at Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie to attend the "Big Picnic" each year.

People came from Toronto to Owen Sound and throughout the Great Lakes region, with some even travelling from Virginia and Tennessee in the U.S. to attend.

Originally organized by Bertrand Joseph Spencer Pitt, a Grenadian-born Toronto lawyer and president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the event sought to foster greater solidarity and pride among members of the Black Canadian community in memory of its remarkable achievements and in face of persistent racism.

Sometimes known as "Maids Day Off," the day was spent picnicking, visiting friends and family, and enjoying the amusement park and rides. According to the Niagara Falls native and award-winning musician "Big" John "T-Bone" Little in 2008: "They were good, some good times."

Family at 1946 Emancipation Day Picnic

The picnics gradually declined in popularity after the UNIA stopped hosting the event in 1951, although they continued to take place for another 20 years. Although similar events were held throughout Ontario since the mid-nineteenth century, the one at Lakeside Park was unique.

The location was easily accessible to those travelling by water on lake steamers, such as the SS Dalhousie City and SS Northumberland, which annually crossed Lake Ontario filled with tourists, or by road, with its proximity to the Canadian-American border. More importantly, it was close to the site of the signing of the Act Against Slavery in 1793 by Governor Simcoe in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the first step in a process that led to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Commonwealth on August 1, 1834.

Emancipation Day Picnic 1949

The Black Horse

A highlight of the day often included a ride on the "black horse" on the Port Dalhousie Carousel, which then - as now - was 5¢. By the 1920s, local lore had come to designate this carousel character symbolic of the troupe of black horses that were led by representatives of the Coloured Corps during the procession to inter the remains of Major General Brock in his monument at Queenston Heights in 1859. The Coloured Corps was the famous organization of freed slaves of African descent, who volunteered to fight with the British in the War of 1812.

The Black Horse on the Port Dalhousie Carousel

With its brightly coloured saddle and tack, the horse served - and continues to serve - as a reminder of the courage and tenacity of ancestors of the Black Canadian and African American communities, both in Niagara and throughout North America.

About the Author

This posting was written by Sarah King Head, a local freelance writer, editor and researcher. She earned two graduate degrees from the University of Toronto before moving to England, where she lived until 2005. Returning to southern Ontario, she enjoys discovering and sharing the truly impressive wealth of history in the Niagara region.

A version of this article originally appeared in Niagara Today Magazine, July 2010.


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