Where Abolition Meets Action

black and white photo of butterfly

A History of Women Organizing Against Gender Violence

By Vikki Law (Adapted for The Peak by Sonali Menezes

There is a growing movement toward abolishing prisons. Anti-violence organizers are calling on prison abolitionists to take gender violence seriously in developing initiatives to address the problem within this context. Fuelled by increasing recognition that women of colour, immigrant, queer, transgender, poor, and other marginalized women are often further brutalized – rather than protected – by the police, grassroots groups, and activists throughout the world, are organizing community alternatives to calling 911. These initiatives are not new. Throughout history, women have acted and organized to ensure their own as well as their loved ones’ safety.

This article examines both past and present models of women’s community self-defence practices against interpersonal violence by exploring methods women have employed to protect themselves, their loved ones, and theircommunities. Storytelling to connect past, present, and future efforts to current initiatives allows us to both envision a future in which police and prisons are not the sole solutions to gender violence and to know that such possibilities can – and, in some small pockets, do or did – exist. While activists and others increasingly embrace the idea of community-based accountability as an alternative to the police, many have difficulty envisioning what accountability processes might look like.

Storytelling to Connect Past, Present and Future

In 2004, Mimi Kim launched Creative Interventions, a resource centre to promote community-based responses to interpersonal violence. The group developed STOP (StoryTelling and Organizing Project), a resource for people to share their experiences with community-based accountability models and interventions to domestic violence, family violence, and sexual abuse. In their 2001 statement on gender violence and incarceration, Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Colour Against Violence challenged communities to not only come up with ways to creatively address violence, but also to document these processes: ‘Transformative practices emerging from local communities should be documented and disseminated to promote collective responses to violence’ (Critical Resistance and INCITE!,2001). By connecting past and current organizing initiatives from across the globe, ‘Where Abolition Meets Actions’ hopes to contribute to the conversations around safety and abolition as well as inspires readers to organize in their own communities.

The 1970s (women’s liberation: defending themselves and each other)

Women’s liberation movements of the 1970s allowed women to begin talking openly about their experiences of sexual assault. Discussions led to a growing realization that women need to take their safety into their own hands and fight back.

Some women formed street patrols to watch for and prevent violence against women. In Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, members of Women’s Liberation group Cell 16 began patrolling the streets where women often left their factory jobs after dark. Students at Iowa State University and the University of Kentucky responded, forming patrols on their campus. The lack of police and judicial response to gender violence led to increasing recognition that women needed to learn to physically defend themselves from male violence.

In 1969, Cell 16 established Tae Kwan Do classes for women. Unlike existing police offered self-defense classes that promoted fear rather than empowerment,Cell 16’s classes challenged students to draw the connections between their learned sense of helplessness and their role in society as women (Lafferty & Clark, 1970, pp. 96–97).

In 1974, believing that all people had the right to live free from violence and recognizing that women were often disproportionately impacted by violence, Nadia Telsey and Annie Ellman started Brooklyn Women’s Martial Arts (BWMA) in New York City. ‘I have felt that it [self-defense] is connected to self-determination,’ stated Ellman. By the mid-1970s, the concept of women’s self-defense had become so popular that women began taking training into their own hands to protect them from violence. Some of the programs and schools founded in the 1970s, such as the BWMA (renamed the Center for Anti-Violence Education or CAE in 1989) and Feminists in Self-Defense Training (FIST) in Olympia, Washington, continue teaching women’s self-defense today.

Although much of the 1970s rhetoric and organizing around gender violence presupposed that women were attacked by strangers, women also recognized and organized against violence perpetrated by those that they know, including spouses and intimate partners. In Neu-Isenburg, a small town near Frankfurt, Germany, a group of women called Fan-Shen decided that, rather than establish a shelter for abused women, they would force the abuser out of the house. When a woman called the local women’s shelter, the group arrived at her home to not only confront her abuser, but also occupy the house as round-the-clock guards to the woman until her abuser moved out. When the strategy was reported in 1977, Fan-Shen had already been successful in five instances (‘Women’s Patrol,’ 1977, p.18).

Anti-violence organizing in communities of color

Communities of colour in the USalso developed methods to ensure women’s safety without relying on a system that has historically ignored their safety or further threatened it by using gender violence as a pretext for increased force, brutality, and mass incarceration against community members. In 1979, when Black women were found brutally murdered in Boston’s primarily Black Roxbury and Dorchester neighbourhoods, residents organized the Dorchester Green Light Program. The program provided identifiable safe houses for women who were threatened or assaulted on the streets. Program coordinators, who lived in Dorchester, visited and spoke at community groups and gatherings in their areas. Residents interested in opening their homes as safe houses filled out applications, which included references and descriptions of the house living situation. The program screened each application and checked the references. Once accepted, the resident attended orientation sessions, which included self-defense instruction. They were then given a green light bulb for their porch light; when someone was at home, the green light was turned on as a signal to anyone in trouble. Within eight months, over 100 safe houses had been established (Dejanikus & Kelly, 1979, p.7).

At a 1986 conference on ending violence against women at UCLA, Beth Richie spoke about a community-based intervention program in East Harlem, a New York neighbourhood that was predominantly Black and Latino. Community residents organized to take responsibility for women’s safety. ‘Safety watchers’ visited the house when called by the abused person or the neighbours. They encouraged the abuser to leave; if the abuser refused, the watchers stayed in the house. Their presence prevented further violence, at least while they were present. One attendee noted; ‘in these communities, people do not call the police fearing more violence from the police. Men are not going to jail because the communities are working together’ (Bustamante, 1986, p.14).

Contemporary organizing against gender violence

Recent legislation, such as the US Violence Against Women Act (1994), recognizes the problem of gender violence and seeks to increase police responsiveness but does little to protect women who are politically, economically, or socially marginalized. Instead, the focus on criminalization and incarceration often places them at further risk of both interpersonal and state violence as well as of arrest, incarceration, and, for immigrant women, deportation (Critical Resistance and INCITE!, 2001).

Knowing this, women have acted both individually and collectively to defend themselves. Sex workers, for instance, have organized in different ways to protect themselves from violence.

In March 2006, police responded to the murders of three sex workers in Daytona Beach, Florida, by cracking down on  the sex trade. Recognizing that the police response did more to target than to protect them,street-based sex workers armed themselves with knives and other weapons to protect themselves and each other and to find the killer. In 1995, Stella Sex Workers Alliance was formed in Montréal by sex workers, public health researchers, and sympathizers. Sex workers are equipped with information and support to help them keep safe. Stella compiles, updates, and circulates a Bad Tricks and Assaulters list, enabling sex workers to share information and avoid dangerous situations. They also produce and provide free reference guides that cover working conditions, current solicitation laws, and health information. Stella also advocates for the decriminalization of sex work, recognizing that the criminalization renders sex workers vulnerable to both outside violence and police abuse (Stella, n.d.).

Sex workers are also taking direct action to stop sex trafficking. In 1997, former sex workers began guarding checkpoints along the Nepal–India border to rescue adolescent Nepalese girls from being smuggled into India. The idea emerged with the women living at Maiti Nepal, a home in Kathmandu for women returning from Indian brothels. Many of the women, who had been kidnapped as adolescents and sold into the sex industry, were ashamed and angry about their experiences and wanted to transform their anger into action. They set up four guard posts along the border and began monitoring for human trafficking. During the first three years, the women caught 70 traffickers, saving 240 girls from India’s brothels.

Women marginalized by other factors, such as racism and poverty, have also organized to protect themselves against both interpersonal and state violence. In 2000, the police murders of two young women of colour sparked a dialogue about violence against women among members of Sista II Sista, a collective of women of colour in Brooklyn, New York. Their response was to form Sistas Liberated Ground, a zone in their neighbourhood where crimes against women would not be tolerated. ‘…Our dependence on a police system that was inherently sexist, homophobic, racist, and classist did not decrease the ongoing violence against women we were seeing in our neighbourhoods. In fact, at times, the police themselves were its main perpetrators,’ members of the group stated in 2007 (Burrowes, Cousins, Rojas, & Ude, 2007, p.229).

They instituted an ‘action line,’ which women could call, to explore the options that they – and the group – could take to address violence in their lives. Sister Circles were also established where women could talk about violence and other problems in their daily lives and encouraged the community – rather than the individual woman – to find solutions. In one instance, a woman at the Sister Circle talked about the man who had been stalking her for over a year and, in response,members of the Sister Circle confronted the man at the barbershop where he worked. His male co-workers told the stalker that, if he continued to harass the woman, he would be fired, so he stopped stalking her (Ude, 2006).

Creating communities to deter violence

Not all strategies to prevent gender violence are easily classified as ‘policing from below.’ Some grassroots groups and coalitions recognize that building communities is the first line of defense against violence and are organizing to create social structures and support networks that can collectively address harmful situations. In Durham, North Carolina, in the aftermath of the 2006 rape of a Black woman by members of a Duke University lacrosse team, women of colour and survivors of sexual violence formed the UBUNTU coalition. UBUNTU works to ‘facilitate a systematic transformation of our communities until the day that sexual violence does not occur’ (UBUNTU). Alexis Pauline Gumbs noted: [Our] responses [to violence] were invented on the spot … without a pre-existing model or a logistical agreement. But they were also made possible by a larger agreement that we as a collective of people living all over the city are committed to responding to gendered violence…I think it is very important that we have been able to see each other as resources so that when we are faced with violent situations we don’t think our only option is to call the state. (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2008, p.81)

UBUNTU members began organizing around the idea of a Harm-Free Zone – an area in which violence would be addressed by the community rather than by the police. ‘A lot of times we talk about community as if it already exists, but I don’t actually think that we have autonomous, completely sustained community. We live with all sorts of dependence on the state, [on] outside institutions. We have a lot of work to do to have the type of communications and support that would fulfill the needs of our community,’ stated Gibbs in 2009. Like the Dorchester Green Light Program, organizers of the Harm-Free Zone brought these ideas to the communities of which they were already a part. ‘Those of us who came together were already working in those settings…for each of us, we’re thinking about how we bring that analysis and that ideal into our preexisting communities.’


Many early anti-violence efforts addressed immediate instances of gender violence, often focusing on the physical aspects of self-defence or a direct response to violence. Women’s organizations taught self-defense classes, confronted abusers and assailants, and formed protective groups to escort each other safely through the streets. In contrast, contemporary organizing often utilizes a multi-layered approach, creatively addressing not only immediate instances of violence but also creating dialogue to challenge and change some of the root causes of gender violence. Despite these differences, each project emphasizes the importance of community – as opposed to individual – actions and responses. None of these projects would have succeeded without a collective sense of responsibility toward each other.

While not every project and group explicitly identifies as an abolitionist group, their practices work toward a radical re-envisioning of creating safety without relying on police. These models are important for imagining and then realizing abolitionist principles.

By examining the variety of approaches in their vastly different contexts, we can begin to connect the abstract ideal with concrete actions that make another world possible. We should be drawing lessons from these projects and approaches to create models that work for our own locations and communities.

Victoria Law is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings by Women in Prison, and a proud parent. She has written extensively about the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance for various news outlets, including Al Jazeera America, Bitchmedia, The Guardian, The Nation and Truthout.

Sonali is a little brown femme living in southern Ontario. She’s a student, artist, zinester, and maker of things through her itty bitty-business GlitteringMagpiee. She enjoys living gently and cuddling with her cat.

The Roma

blue and grey variation of roma flag which includes a grey sixteen-spoked chakra

A Legacy of Persecution

By: Ronald Lee

Unlike most other Indigenous and oppressed people of colour, the Roma (1) people are neither Indigenous nor victims of colonialism. Instead, we have been what might be described as perpetual refugees. Since our coerced departure from India in the early 11th century CE as a Hindu army and its camp followers(2), a virtual population including women and children forcibly removed from India by Ghaznavid(3) conquerors and sent to Persia as garrison troops, we have been without a country. Following the battle of Dandanqan in 1040 where the Ghaznavid armies and their Hindu ghulam(4) were defeated by the invading Seldjuk Turks, the surviving Hindu troops and camp followers fled west to Armenia. Here they remained until 1054, when invading Seldjuks again forced us to flee to Cilicia, an Armenian kingdom in the Byzantine Empire, where the Roma nation was born as the Hindu caste system disintegrated and a new nation came into being. Today we recognize this as the Romani people, colloquially known as “Gypsies”, a contraction of Egyptian in English. Europeans in general called us “Egyptians” in the mistaken belief that we had originated in Egypt. Another name was Greek athinganoi (“untouchables”) which gave rise to terms like Cigan, Tsigani, Bohémiens, Zigeuner, Gitanos, Zingari and many more, all created by outsiders to define us.

In 1071, the Seldjuk Turks defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikirt and the former Eastern Roman Empire in Anatolia now became the Turkish Sultanate of Ikonea, also known as Roum. What was left of the Byzantine Empire in the Balkans was later invaded by the Ottoman Turks, who replaced the Seldjuks as the ruling dynasty. Many Romani groups had left Cilicia to migrate across the Bosporus and more came with the invading Ottomans as artisans and sazende (military musicians) in the mid 14th century CE as the Ottoman Empire expanded into the Balkans. While the vast majority of Roma remained in the Balkans, some moved westwards through Romania and small bands began to appear in all European countries in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Wallachia and Moldavia, two Turkish vassal regions that later became Romania, Roma were enslaved because of their artisan skills by the nobility, the State and the Church. They were not freed until the Slobuzheniya (Emancipation) of 1865.

For a brief period the Romani groups that entered other European countries were seen as Egyptian Christian pilgrims who had fled Egypt to escape conversion to Islam by the Arab invaders, and were provided with alms and documents signed by kings and Popes giving them permission to travel freely. Following this period, while these groups were not enslaved like those in Romania, savage persecutions began when the Roman Catholic hegemony in Europe began to disintegrate with the Protestant Reformation. Roma were declared to be “cannibals”, “heathens” and “child thieves.” Rulers ordered Roma to be banished from their countries and in England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, even English people who associated with Roma were guilty of a hanging offence. The Catholic Church accused Roma of having made the nails that crucified Christ even though we had not yet left India at this date. Noblemen in the German States and Switzerland organized Gypsy hunts where we were hunted down like wild animals. Large numbers of men were hung and their women whipped and mutilated by having an ear removed. Roma children were taken away from their parents and given to Christian families. One of the most successful of these child thieves was Empress Maria Theresa of Austro-Hungary (1717-1780), whose program of assimilation for Hungarian Romungere resulted in large numbers of children being kidnapped and given to Hungarian families. Roma were forbidden to marry other Roma, to speak the Romani language and to wear their ethnic clothing. They were ordered to become Ujmagyar, or “New Hungarians.”

In time, the persecutions waned except in the German States where repressive laws and Romaphobia reached their zenith under the Nazi Regime. Well over a million Sinti and Roma were murdered during the Holocaust. The true number of victims during this genocide will never be known because too many victims were identified as Jews, partisans or hostages. Others were rounded up and shot by fascist elements in Hungary and elsewhere in the puppet States and never officially recorded as victims.

After the end of World War II, European Roma were confronted with Communism in the countries gobbled up by Stalin and referred to as The Communist Bloc during the Cold War. Since the traditional Romani economy has always been free enterprise, a symbiotic relationship with the non-Romani world as providers of artisan services and entertainment, the Communists saw this as “free entertprise” and it was ruthlessly stamped out except in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Roma were now forced to work in factories; Nomadism was forbidden for those who still travelled except, oddly enough, under Stalin in the Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia, the State bought the horses and placed the caravans without their wheels on sites which became sedentary ghettos. These are now reduced to third-world shanty towns like Swinia in the Czech Republic, the subject of a National Film Board documentary entitled The Gypsies of Swinia (1998). Despite The Decade of Roma Inclusion (2005-2015) which many Romani activists refer to as The Decade of Roma Exclusion, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Swinias in the former Communist countries and elsewhere in Europe like the Campi di Nomadi in Italy. Roma in the so-called “New Democracies” are living under what can only be described as “Undeclared Apartheid”. This has compelled untold numbers of refugees to flee to Western European countries and to the Americas, including Canada, where we have never been the preferred newcomer group, especially under a Conservative government. Jason Kenney, for example, our former Minister of Immigration under the Harper regime, referred to Hungarian Roma refugees as “bogus refugees”, and a previous Liberal government under Jean Chrétien set up an IRB kangaroo Court to prove that Hungarian Roma refugees had no need to come to Canada with the infamous test cases of 2000. These were later declared to be illegal by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Efforts at reconciliation have been instigated by some governments. Germany, under Angela Merkel, has created a monument to the Sinti and Romani victims of National Socialism. The government of the Czech Republic has finally agreed to get rid of the pig farm that has occupied the former site of Lety, a concentration work camp run by Czechs from 1939 until 1943 where thousands of Czech Roma died from brutality, malnutrition and disease. After the Germans took it over in 1943, it became a transit camp for Auschwitz. Today, the pogroms continue. Roma have been firebombed and murdered in Hungary. In the Ukraine, Canada’s current pet democracy (sic), thugs are murdering Roma and burning down their camps with impunity. As more and more European countries fall under the sway of right-wing governments, Roma become the convenient scapegoats of the ruling demagogues like Donald Trump’s “Mexicans”. In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the walls are built around Roma ghettos to “protect” the non-Roma living nearby.

To this day, there are many hurdles to overcome. Since the Harper government refused to officially recognize Roma as victims of genocide by the Nazis and their collaborating puppet states, we have been lobbying the Trudeau government to do this to no avail. We would also appreciate an apology for the more than 500 years of Roma slavery in Wallachia and Moldavia, the two Principalities that became modern Romania. Finally, we would like to see an end to cultural appropriation of the Roma culture and music where non Roma performers can piggyback on the popularity of genuine Romani artists. One of the worst offenders is Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello among many others. Finally we want to see an end to the use of the word “gypsy” with a small “g” when reference is made to the Romani people. We are Roma, not “gypsies.”

On the positive side, numerous Romani NGOs and other organizations have sprung up all over the world. The Toronto Roma Community Centre was registered in 1998 and has worked to assist Roma refugees with social integration and combatted prejudice and hate crimes like the Skinhead trial and the hate charges against Ezra Levant for slandering the Romani people. The Western Canadian Alliance in Vancouver was founded in 1997 to assist Czech Roma refugees in that city and now there is Romanipen in Montreal, a sister organization of our Toronto NGO. Many young Roma are attending university, graduating and entering the academic world. We are producing authors, lawyers, teachers and an educated elite which will hopefully lead our people to a better tomorrow.


  1. I am using the word Roma because this is known in Canada and used by the media as an adjective. It is actually a plural noun and refers to the Roma of Central/Eastern Europe. The proper adjective is Romani, not Roma, and refers to all Romani groups (an English spelling of Romany is no longer used by us). Romani people in Western Europe do not use the word Roma as an ethnic marker but have their own identity markers like Romanichals (UK), Sinti (Germany, France, Italy), Manouche (France), Cales (Spain), Kaale (Finland), etc.
  2. Ancient and Medieval armies needed a lot of camp followers to support an army in the field composed of cooks, butchers, fletchers, religious leaders, veterinarians, washerwomen, medical staff, sanitary workers and other skilled people. In a Hindu army, these people would have belonged to many jatis or sub-castes.
  3. Ghaznavids, a Muslim dynasty of former Turkish slave soldiers who overthrew the Arab Caliphate in Afghanistan in the 10th century CE and expanded their kingdom into North-Central India, forcing the local rulers to submit to their rule and pay tribute.
  4. Ghulam, slave soldiers. The Hindu rulers were forced to provide tribute as vassal states to the Ghaznavid conquerors consisting of precious metals, food, elephants and their handlers and what were called client soldiers, or ghulam, from the military caste (Kshatriya). Like all Indian and other armies of this period, the army consisted of fighting troops and camp followers which included their wives and children.
  5. This is still happening today in Canada. Children’s Aid services are taking children of some refugee Roma families away and placing them in foster care with non-Roma instead of giving them to Romani relatives or to another Romani family. This, like the same practice with our Native People, is cultural genocide.
  6. Romungere, the major Hungarian Romani group
  7. Sinti are Roma who decided to live in the German States in the Middle Ages. They distance themselves from the Roma groups of Central/Eastern Europe even though they speak a Romani dialect. Their name is probably derived from German Reisende (“Travellers.”)
  8. An initiative undertaken by twelve European countries to work toward improving the conditions of Roma in Europe. Unfortunately, conditions are worse now than they were in 2005.
  9. This is not just my opinion, it is also that of numerous civil rights organizations and academics who have studied the situation first hand.
  10. The Romani population of Bohemia and Moravia, about 7,500 people, was effectively wiped out during the Holocaust. Those in Slovakia, a Nazi puppet state, survived for the most part.
  11. In one of his outbursts of verbal diarrhea, Levant referred to the Romani people as a gang of criminals like the Crips and the Bloods. He was forced to make an apology in 2013. He would have been convicted of a hate crime if he had not been protected by his friends in the Harper government.

Ronald Lee is a Romani activist, author, lecturer, translator and founding member of the Roma Community of Toronto (1998). He taught the only course on Roma in Canada at New College, Uof T. (2003-2008). He has lectured widely including Harvard and Colombia. His publications can be seen at www.kopachi.com

Heritage Hall & Black History

by Denise Francis

     The base stones of 83 Essex Street, former British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church, were set in June of 1880. Its cornerstone was set on September 18th, 1880, as recorded in Guelph newspapers: The Mercury and The Advertiser. The contents of the cornerstone were described in the same article, “Copy of the Holy Scriptures, Hymn Book of the BME Church, copy of the 

Missionary Messenger, the organ of the church, and copies of the Mercury and Herald. The roots of the BME Church were in the American Methodist Episcopal Church and the Underground Railroad. In 1783, after the American Revolution, slaves accompanied their Loyalist masters into Nova Scotia and other British colonies north of the border, some traveling to Upper Canada (Ontario). There had been slavery in Upper Canada as early as the French regime, as there were known slaves in the Windsor area in the mid 1700s.

In 1793, Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe, an Anglican, regarded slavery as anti-Christian. As a result, he ensured the passage of “An Act to prevent the further introduction of Slaves and to limit the term of contracts for servitude within this Province.” It was the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire, and while it was met with resistance from local slave owners, it abolished the lifelong enslavement of the children of slaves, and prevented further slaves from being brought into the colony.

Once news of Simcoe’s legislation reached slave states in the US, Upper Canada became the destination for many escapees, often with the help of the Native community on highland trails. It was upon those trails that the Underground Railroad was created in the late 1820s. The fugitive slave Railroad was originally a loose knit coalition of anti-slavers, most of whom were Hicksite Quakers, who began to aid and abet the movement of escaped slaves into non-slave states and Upper Canada. Once those slaves got beyond the reach of American law, they created communities in border towns like Windsor and Niagara, while others moved inland towards towns like Chatham and the Queen’s Bush Settlement (current day north Waterloo and Wellington counties) on a tributary of the Grand River.

Guelph was established as a village in 1827 and most former fugitives who came through or stayed in the town came north from Lake Ontario and the Niagara River crossings. Between 1793 and 1865, tens of thousands of African-American slaves entered Canada via the network of Native and white anti-slavery activists. President Lincoln ended the slave economy through an executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1st, 1863. Although slavery was not formally abolished in the United States, until December 1865, when the 13th Amendment became law after the defeat of the South.

Guelph’s place in all that activity was at first no more than a stopping place for most on their way to the Queen’s Bush in north Wellington and Waterloo counties, the largest settlement of escaped slaves in the colony. By the 1850s that settlement was disbanded, and many of the families and individuals dispersed to various communities, some to Guelph, north to Owen Sound and Collingwood or west to Chatham and a myriad of other places throughout the province.

Although Black benevolent societies and fraternal organizations were significant players in helping former slaves in Canada adjust to freedom and the climate of the north, they had a great many allies including Quakers, Native Americans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and Anglicans. Other allies included Anti-Slavery societies, of which George Brown’s Toronto newspaper, The Globe was a staunch supporter. There were a number of reformers in the Guelph area who played local roles.

The neighbourhood of Essex and Waterloo streets had first become home to Guelph’s English Methodist Community who named the streets, and then to black settlers who found the community welcoming. Some of the Blacks had Caribbean or Loyalist origins, but more were from Queen’s Bush families. In the 1881 census of the province, two thirds of the 107 Guelphites of African-American origins lived in the neighborhood.

The building at 83 Essex Street ceased to operate as a BME church for more than 20 years from the 1970s to 1994. In 1994 a congregation was reformed under a minister from the Caribbean. The minister and her congregation left the BME Church in 2009. The Guelph Black Heritage Society (GBHS) was formed after the BME Church was listed for sale in November 2011. The GBHS’s offer to purchase the BME Church was accepted and the sale was finalized in December 2012. The Guelph BME Church building has been renamed Heritage Hall.

In August 2013, 83 Essex Street was designated a cultural heritage property by the City of Guelph. The plaque outside the Heritage Hall reads:

“Built in 1880 of local limestone in gothic revival style, the B.M.E. church became the centre of Guelph’s Black community. The city’s early black community of fugitive slaves from the United States settled near Waterloo and Essex streets as workers in area stone quarries. After worshipping in a frame church nearby, this stone church was built as a meeting place and a safe haven.”

The mission of the Guelph Black Heritage Society is to restore and maintain the historical former British Methodist Episcopal Church building. 83 Essex Street, now known as the “Heritage Hall”, serves as a community cultural and spiritual gathering space and promotes Guelph and Wellington County’s distinctive place in Southwestern Ontario’s rich Black heritage.

GBHS activities include providing the community the opportunity to learn about our community’s Black heritage by staging presentations during Black History Month, Emancipation Day and throughout the year; providing space for events, workshops, meeting space for clubs and other community groups, and providing members of the community with rental space for live events (weddings, concerts, day camps, and more).

The Guelph Black Heritage Society is in the midst of the “Rampin’ It Up!” fundraising campaign.  The purpose of this campaign is to achieve wheelchair accessibility into Heritage Hall via the Freedom Ramp, foyer and accessible washroom.  The fundraising goal is $50,000 and we will accept donations of labour and materials to help off-set construction costs.  The Guelph Black Heritage Society is a registered charity. Registration # 80158 3907 RR0001. Tax receipts will be issued for donations.

To learn more about our campaign or to make a donation at our  GoFundMe. 

contact us via email: info@guelphblackheritage.ca

visit our website and facebook


Denise Francis
Denise was raised in Guelph and is a graduate of the University of Guelph. Denise is a long-term employee of the Waterloo Catholic District School Board and works in the Human Resource Services Department. Denise is a founding board member of the Guelph Black Heritage Society and currently serves as President / Treasurer.