65 years ago Collingwood’s first Black foreman died on the job. To this day his family asks: deliberate or an accident?

·6 min read

The image is etched into Carolynn Wilson’s memory, even 65 years later: Her father rushing through the door after being sprayed head to toe with tar.

He ripped off his shirt running upstairs calling for his wife Yvonne to get oil to help remove the tar, but by then he was burned.

It was enough to confirm her family’s suspicions — Herbert Wilson’s white subordinates weren’t thrilled to work for a Black man.

“I couldn’t believe Daddy had to go back to work … we were upset, our family and community,” Carolynn recalled in an interview with the Star.

Just months later, in March 1955, Herbert, 37, died from a fatal fall while on the job, sparking questions that haunt his family to this day.

“Herbie Wilson’s death — was it a hoax? Was it on purpose? Was it deliberate? Was it an accident?” Carolynn said. “Many of us thought our father’s death was discrimination and deliberate.”

Officially, it was determined that a tree branch rebounded, knocking Herbert, the Town of Collingwood’s first Black foreman, off a ladder. But, reports of what happened varied, including some that indicated Herbert’s co-workers had tied a rope between the offending branch and a truck. There wasn’t a police investigation until decades later in 2002 when a politician’s letter prompted the OPP to look into it, but Herb’s colleagues were never questioned as they were all deceased by that time. On top of that, acknowledgment from the town, whether through compensation or a search for answers, never came.

The day Herb died, Carolynn said he shouldn’t have been up the tree at all because as a foreman, he was a supervisor. According to the OPP’s 2002 report, Herb’s brother-in-law said that he suspected that the men on Herb’s team were drinking alcohol at the time. That is likely why Herb took the saw up the ladder himself, Carolynn said.

A Globe and Mail article published on March 31, 1955, said while sawing a limb, Herb “fell from the ladder and the limb toppled on him.” Herbert died in hospital the next day.

According to the 2002 OPP report, while Herb was up the tree, on one ladder, and a colleague on another, more workers below tied a rope to one of the branches and attached it to a truck. The report doesn’t make clear why the rope and truck were involved.

Carolynn says to her knowledge, it wasn’t the cut branch, but the branch tied to the rope that caused the fall. Either the truck jerked, or the rope broke, causing the branch to fly back up, like a “slingshot,” she said.

The OPP ultimately decided in 2002 that his death was likely a tragic accident and, with so much time having passed, it would have been impossible to really determine if there was any sort of cover up or anything intentional had transpired.

Herbert and his wife Yvonne lived in Collingwood, Ont. with their three children, Carolynn, Herb Jr. and Sylvia, who was just three months old when her father died. Herb worked for the town starting in 1938, leaving for five years in between to serve in the Canadian Medical Corps during the Second World War.

Carolynn said the 2002 investigation felt like a win after years of being ignored, but with no acknowledgment or compensation from the town, it’s hard for the family to feel like they’ve received closure. And the town’s overall silence around Herb’s passing has hung over the Wilson siblings.

“It hurts to do this, to feel these feelings, from childhood to seniorhood,” Carolynn said.

“He was worth it. His life was important,” Sylvia said.

The sisters would like to see something in the town to remember him by.

“They let this man die and they didn’t think it was worthwhile to have an investigation … to acknowledge his life. To say that he was important,” Sylvia said.

Part of what has caused so much hurt, the sisters say, is the silence about what happened.

The sisters, as well as community members who were later interviewed for a short documentary for Rogers TV, said that no one in the town ever spoke about his death following.

Wally Kenwell, who witnessed Herbert fall at age 14, spoke with the OPP saying he was upset that the death was kept so quiet afterwards.

“They didn’t even phone up his wife to tell her he was in the hospital,” Kenwall said in a 2017 Rogers TV documentary.

Ryerson Picot, whose father worked with Herb and has since passed away, also spoke with the documentary filmmakers. He said his dad told him about the incident, saying that some people think the driver of the truck was confused by the gear shift and caused the truck to lurch forward. He also remembers his dad telling him not to say anything about it.

Since she was a teenager, Carolynn has written countless letters and freedom of information requests trying to get recognition and answers for what happened to her father. By now, she says she has trunk loads of papers.

“As children, we pick up things and you hear things, and for some reason down the road it just stayed in my memory. It has never died from 1955,” said Carolynn, who is now 72 and operates Sheffield Park Black History and Cultural Museum in Clarksburg, Ont., near Collingwood.

For years she contacted government officials and collected documents first on her own, and eventually with the help of friends and the now closed African Canadian Legal Clinic.

She reached out to then NDP MPP Howard Hampton for support, and a letter from him is what prompted the OPP’s investigation in 2002.

“It’s certainly going to be a challenge to find what, if anything, is still out there,” said Det.-Sgt. Dave Christie of Collingwood OPP at the time, according to a 2002 Star article.

The OPP investigated Herb’s death for three months, interviewing 14 witnesses and going through Simcoe County and museum archives.

The current Mayor of Collingwood Brian Saunderson, who has been in office for two years, speaks highly of the community work Carolynn and Sylvia Wilson have done in the town through their museum and the church they attend.

He says if something like what happened to Herbert had happened today, there certainly would have been an investigation. “It’s one of those very difficult situations. I don’t know how you address it without really being able to understand exactly what happened … our hearts go out to Sylvia and Carolynn.”

Saunderson said the town has recently joined a coalition committed to working toward ensuring “there are no systemic barriers for inclusion in our communities.”

“I think that the story about Herbert and his death is a very timely reminder of the issues that are out there. And we have to work together to address these,” he said.

The Wilson sisters continue to live in Collingwood and through their museum are dedicated to preserving Black history in the area. Where their father is concerned, they hope that the town will do the same.

Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: afrancis@thestar.ca

Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star