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Festival to celebrate area’s links to the Underground Railroad

Continuing to remember a unique blend of cultures keeps Toronto-based musician Diana Braithwaite coming back to hold the annual Underground Railroad Festival in Drayton.

Drayton’s history was enriched by the culture brought to it by African-Canadian settlers who survived journeys through the Underground Railroad and brought with them unfamiliar sounds of blue grass, jazz, early blues and country jamboree music. Though the music was not developed in the townships, Braithwaite explains this is where the various musical forms were brought after their beginnings in the American South.

“The music starts from the seed of what the Underground Railroad was all about, it comes out of the experience of the people who lived near Drayton,” Braithwaite said in a phone interview.

In its fourth year, the festival continues to represent the mark left by freed American slaves who came to the region in the 1800s and settled in the Queen’s Bush Settlement, an area spanning parts of Woolwich and Wellesley townships. Though the settlers were eventually forced to leave the area due to government controls, Braithwaite and others from African-Canadian families can still trace their roots to the townships encompassing Queen’s Bush and other similar settlements.

Braithwaite is tied to the land through her mother’s side of the family which has lived in the area for many years. Her great great-great-grandfather, Dangerfield Lawson, came to the area through the Underground Railroad and settled near Elmira, according to Braithwaite. Despite being born in Toronto, the blues singer and creative director decided to organize the festival with partner Chris Whiteley, who handles the musical directing and on-site festival co-ordination.

Five years ago, Braithwaite made the decision to organize the festival after a plaque unveiling at Glen Allan Park, by the Wellington Historical Society, in honor of the Queen’s Bush black pioneers.

“I decided at that point to start a music festival in keeping the memory of those first African-Canadian settlers that had come through the Underground Railroad alive. Also educating the public and creating more awareness about what the Underground Railroad was,” Braithwaite said, adding that she hopes to feature a number of national and international performers.

This year’s festival will be held on Aug. 18 at Centennial Park and two local speakers will present their studies on the area’s historical connections. Sociology professor Timothy Epp will speak about the relationship between Mennonites and early black pioneers and Dell Ashkewe of the Potawattomi Bear Clan will explain the connection between local rivers and the Underground Railroad. Tickets are $40 each (with children, youth and senior discounts) and are available online at www.braithwaiteandwhiteley.com.

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