Historic Black settlement Willow Grove to be honoured by Canada Post

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The historic community of Willow Grove, an important part of New Brunswick's Black history, will be honoured next year with its own postage stamp.

Canada Post announced the community outside Saint John will be featured on a stamp in time for Black History Month.

For Ralph Thomas, a descendent of residents of Willow Grove and a proponent of local Black history, the honour is a long time coming.

"It's just unbelievable," said Thomas.

"We have gone down through the years without being recognized with some of our great folks that came to these parts and went through a very tough time to get started in life. And now all of a sudden, we're going to recognize some of those folks that came to these parts in the 1700s and the 1800s."

'All due encouragement'

The community was founded in 1815.

During the War of 1812, the British put out a call saying anyone living in the United States would be welcomed in the British Empire.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

"All those who may be disposed to emigrate from the United States will, with their families, be received on board of His Majesty's ships or vessels of war, or at the military posts that may be established, upon or near the coast of the United States," said Sir Alexander Cochrane, commander in chief of the Royal Navy in North America, in an 1814 proclamation.

"They will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty's sea or land forces, or of being sent as free settlers, to the British possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with all due encouragement."

Thousands of Black people living on the coast in the mid-Atlantic states, many escaping slavery, made the decision to travel to New Brunswick looking for a better life.

'Very reluctant'

But according to late historian W.A. Spray, the British government, looking to find homes for thousands of Black refugees, met resistance from the province of Nova Scotia.

Spray said the British wanted to send upwards of 3,000 refugees to the province, but the legislature pushed back saying there were too many Black people in Nova Scotia already.

Cherise Letson/CBC
Cherise Letson/CBC

So they turned to New Brunswick, where the reception was just as frosty.

"On 13 April 1815, Major General Stracey Smyth, the Administrator of New Brunswick, asked his Executive Council to consider whether the province should receive 400-500 black refugees," said Spray in his article "The Settlement of the Black Refugees in New Brunswick 1815 – 1836."

"Although the Council agreed by a vote of 3 to 2 to accept the refugees, the New Brunswick government was very reluctant to assume any responsibility for their welfare."

Poor land, and in short supply

Of the thousands that departed the states, 371 settled in Willow Grove, but they quickly found that what they were promised, good land for farming, wasn't exactly what they received.

The plots they received were smaller than the plots given to White people who traveled from the United States.

"The policy in New Brunswick at this time was to give free grants of at least 100 acres to white settlers," said Spray.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

"Yet the black refugees were to get only 50 acres, they were to pay for the surveys, and they were to receive licenses of occupation for three years."

To add insult to injury, the land wasn't particularly good.

"When they got here, it was not as good as they had been told," said Thomas.

"You know, the places wasn't ready for them. The grounds that were given to them were grounds that we know, even today, you still can't toil them to do anything with them as far as growing anything or doing what you normally do when you come to a new area or new settlement."

'A great thing to happen'

Willow Grove will be one of two historically Black communities featured on stamps in February, the other being Amber Valley, Alberta.

Thomas said the stamp is a good start to recognizing more Black history in New Brunswick and Canada.

Jordan Gill/CBC
Jordan Gill/CBC

"It's indeed a great thing to happen because we're now into different things with the black community, with the Black Lives Matter, the black history organizations trying to find their history, really, and tell the rest of the world about that," said Thomas.

"It's a great time to be in the news across Canada. We want people to learn our history and find out the real stories that's right here in their own backyard."