While some Kitchener residents celebrate Oktoberfest, others are taking a walking tour through another prominent aspect of Kitchener history.
Black Presence in Berlin, a local walking tour, discusses Berlin, Kitchener’s former name, and its connection to the early Black settlers of the Queens Bush settlement. In addition to former sites where Black residents lived, their businesses and schools in the 19th century, and their contributions to the community, the tour travels two blocks for 90 minutes but if Peggy Plet was let loose, she could talk for “three hours.”
“Most people think the Black presence in Kitchener started in the 1960s because that's when immigration started, but that is, of course, a myth,” said Plet, tour leader for Black Presence in Berlin,
Over 400 people have attended since the tour's start in February 2022, and they have since been nominated for an ACO Heritage Award. A Black historian for over 25 years, Plet arrived in Kitchener in 2007, when she first inquired after the first Black people to arrive in the region.
She says that since she started working in her field, Plet's connection to the City of Kitchener has only become stronger.
“If you buy into that (myth) like I did, you feel a sense of not belonging because you just came (to Canada),” said Plet. “The realisation that black people have walked the same streets that I walk on my way to work, it was very, very powerful to me.”
Plet is “particularly intrigued” by Peter Susand, who came to Canada from the United States as a “freedom seeker,” but has no recorded information about his prior life. She’s curious about what it was like for him to be a black man coming out of slavery as a man in an interracial marriage, with children of mixed heritage.
“I myself have children of mixed heritage and so I am curious to know what it was like for his family here in Berlin,” said Plet. “He also had very high expectations when he first came here to Canada but I sense that he left here quite disappointed.”
It's in telling these stories that Plet hopes to help guests relearn Kitchener's past. The tour covers Black teachers, a Black lawyer, Black domestic workers and even a Black man who ran for office. Another misconception is that all Black people immigrated to Berlin in the 19th century via the Underground Railroad. In reality, Berlin was a hotspot for free and educated Black people.
“People are, in general, surprised that there is so much (history) that they didn't know,” said Plet. “I had someone from (Waterloo) say ‘I’ve lived 53 years in Kitchener and I had no idea of this history,’ and so something has to change.”
In addition to providing a “starting point” on local Black history, the tour sends a follow-up email with resources for people who want to continue educating themselves. Plet stressed that while February is Black history month, the tour is not just for February and not just for Black people.
“I think if you understand that the problems and challenges we have today are rooted in the past, education can help a lot to understanding but also compassion and tolerance for one another,” said Plet.
Tour dates are available September 24 and October 14. Tickets cost $30.00 and groups have a cap of 20 people.