On the eve of Black History Month, the sign for a road with a controversial name has been vandalized again, the latest in a years-long battle to preserve the name and legacy of more than 170 years in the region.
In Chatsworth Township, about a 50-minute drive west of Collingwood, there is a small road with a controversial name and storied past.
Over the years, signs pointing to Negro Creek Road have been removed, spray painted and, in some cases, riddled with bullet holes as a regular occurrence witnessed by occupants of homes along the stretch.
On January 30 – two days before the start of Black History Month – an entire road sign was knocked down.
Iveta May has lived in her home on Negro Creek Road for 12 years.
“Since we moved there, the signs have been stolen or vandalized on several occasions,” May said. “For the past three years or so, it usually seems to coincide with a (news) event.”
May recalls there was a recent incident where a Black Lives Matter protest happened in Owen Sound, and the sign disappeared after it concluded. She says the signs were vandalized again in June 2021 after Derek Chauvin was convicted and sentenced for the murder of George Floyd in the United States.
“We think the person(s) vandalizing this sign seems to be reacting to something, or at least it seems that way. The message is there,” she said.
In the latest vandalism incident on Jan. 30, May says there were very clean cuts in the metal causing the entire pole to fall off, indicating special tools were used.
At a Gray County Committee plenary meeting on December 9, 2021, Chatsworth Township Mayor Scott Mackey acknowledged that stolen or vandalized signs on the road were commonplace.
“Over the past two years, concerned citizens have brought it to our attention. Some say it’s racist to have a road named that,” Mackey said. “We had other residents who said they couldn’t receive deliveries because when they typed in that address, part of the search engine (identified it) as racist.”
On February 2, the Township of Chatsworth passed a proclamation declaring Black History Month in the township and, as part of a staff report on the matter, confirmed that the Negro Creek Road signs had been deleted many times over the years.
“Perhaps more education about the settlement and the legal challenge itself could deter the removal of signs in the future,” township staff noted in their report.
Repeated requests for comment sent to Chatsworth Township staff for this story were not returned.
May says the theft of signs also creates practical problems for roadside residents, including making it harder for delivery personnel or emergency services to find homes.
“Erasing history by taking the signs is really dodgy because what they’re doing is stoking all the activism, so now we know a lot more about history than before,” May said.
While Negro Creek refers to the name of a road, it is also the name of the nearby river and the historic site of a black pioneer settlement. The area was established as a settlement by approximately 50 black families who arrived via the Underground Railroad.
Historical records show that black settlers began arriving in Gray County as early as the 1820s. This area was patented in Holland Township on December 29, 1851, with the surnames Earle/Earl, Douglas, Miller, Bowie/Booie and others.
Gael Miller Jackson is a direct descendant of Henry Miller, whose family settled in the Negro Creek area in the mid-1800s. While currently living in Ajax, Jackson says she made trips to the region over the years.
Miller Jackson recalls a moment before she realized her family’s connection to the area where she traveled and walked the grounds. She said she got emotional and at the time she didn’t know why.
“This particular area, I did not know about it. For many years I never realized that was where they were. My (great-great) grandfather Miller had a will and he talked about it in his will,” Miller Jackson said. “It’s part of the story. It’s a part of me. That makes it more important to me, because my own ancestors were there.
“You have to remember that. To me, (vandalism) is like trying to erase history,” Miller Jackson said. “After all the cruelty (black people) have gone through, it’s very important to me that the story remains.”
Longtime Collingwood resident Carolynn Wilson has a personal connection to the Negro Creek Road issue, as it was the one that earned her the nickname “activist” some 25 years ago.
“In the 1990s we were working on the old Black Pioneer Cemetery on Durham Road. We searched through the stones of the ancestors. Neighbors in the area came down and asked if we knew that road,” Wilson said. CollingwoodToday.ca. “They were concerned the township was talking about renaming the road because of the 911 numbers.”
The council at the time, then Holland Township, was attempting to change the name of the road to Moggie Road in honor of George Moggie, an early white settler.
“There is nothing offensive about Negro Creek. They were there,” Wilson said. “The city was concerned it was offensive. They wanted to honor the white man who lived around the corner.
“We thought that if the name was gone, there was nothing left. The creek, the river, the road — that’s all those descendants had,” Wilson said.
In 1996, Wilson filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to keep the name. Almost two years later, in December 1997, the commission announced that the township had folded on the issue and would keep the Negro Creek Road name.
“It was a big win. What we did was right. It felt good because it was all of us. We were a group,” Wilson said. “It was a feeling of achievement. We won this for everyone.
Although Wilson has said that some of his own family (the Wilsons and the Sheffields) also trace their ancestry to the area, that did not factor into his decision to take a stand all those years ago. She remembers a newspaper article in the Owen Sound Sun Hours about this decision, it is the first time that she has heard herself described as an activist.
“Sometimes many descendants are unable to speak or don’t know how. Sometimes they’re a little reluctant,” Wilson said. “He was the right thing to do. It was about social justice.”
Regarding the vandalism currently taking place on the signs, Wilson says it could be racially motivated, or it could be that some people believe there are negative connotations associated with the word “nigger” and think that they ally themselves with the black community. targeting the signs.
Regardless of the intent, Wilson says she thinks it counts as a form of erasure. She says she would like to see the area’s history more pronounced, perhaps by erecting a sign, so that the only record of the people who founded the area is not just the name of the road.
“They were people. Some are buried there. There were blacks and aboriginals. The community worked together to build this,” she said. “(We need) something to tell the story.”