As Carolynn and Sylvia Wilson watched Monday’s council meeting from their Collingwood home, they both felt a mix of emotions regarding the town’s acknowledgement of their parents’ legacy after nearly 70 years of fighting for their story to be told.
On Monday night, council voted in favour of building a memorial and naming a park after their father Herbert Wilson, a Black man who died under suspicious conditions while working for the town in 1955. His wife, Yvonne Sheffield, will also be recognized.
Town staff first presented a plan to council’s corporate and community services standing committee on Sept. 14, recommending the town name the parklands adjacent to Admiral Collingwood Public School “Wilson-Sheffield Park.”
Council also approved $35,000 as part of the 2022 town budget for a memorial to be installed at the site of Wilson’s death, in the boulevard of Sixth Street near Maple Street, which will convey the story of Wilson’s life.
“We’re thankful and grateful that the municipality has recognized our father. It was major. It’s quite an honour that our dad’s legacy will be remembered. It will also be a chance for the community and our family to do some healing,” Carolynn told CollingwoodToday.ca this week.
“It’s almost like a weight’s been lifted,” said Sylvia. “We can finally take a breath. Finally, somebody is listening.”
Herbert Wilson was the first Black foreman employed by the town of Collingwood, where he worked in the 1950s. He died after falling from a ladder while working on a tree in March 1955. He was 37 years old. Some reports suggested his co-workers sabotaged the tree branch that knocked him off the ladder. It’s also not clear why Wilson, as the senior staff on duty, was the one up the ladder.
There was no investigation into his death at the time.
His death followed another violent work incident. Months before he died, Wilson came running home from work early one day after being sprayed head to toe with hot tar.
While there was a police investigation into Wilson’s death in 2002, by then most of the people who witnessed his death had died of old age.
“The facts of the Herbert Wilson tragedy easily provoke concerns that the accident suffered was, at the very least, related to racial discrimination,” stated the town staff report.
Wilson was married to Yvonne Sheffield who was also raised in Collingwood and was a gifted athlete at Collingwood Collegiate Institute. Despite her gifts, she was denied access to competitions, including the 1938 Championship Track Meet in Orillia because of the colour of her skin.
Yvonne and Herbert had three children. Their son, Herb Wilson lives in Wasaga Beach. Their daughters Sylvia and Carolynn still live in Collingwood. Sylvia was three months old when her father died.
Sylvia says she wishes her mother, who died in 2016, as well as her uncles who also did work to draw attention to the incident in the 1950s, were alive to see the recognition.
“Things like this do help, when we tell our stories. A lot of times, people of colour don’t want to tell their stories because, who is going to listen, and who is going to care?” said Sylvia.
“It’s probably very shocking for people who don’t know to hear that this happened,” said Carolynn. “Herb’s life should have mattered. It does help for our story to come out like this, even though it’s taken this long. We have carried this all of our lives.”
“It won’t solve anything, but putting up a monument and naming a park are good acts of citizenship. It just doesn’t quite deal with the issue of how it happened, or why it happened,” said Sylvia.
“We are thankful, but underneath that feeling, there is also a loss,” added Carolynn.
Sylvia says the memorial and park will make a difference not only to the Wilson and Sheffield families, but also to the Black community of Collingwood and South Georgian Bay as a whole.
“They were all under the same pressure from outside forces as our dad was. Who spoke for them?” said Sylvia.
“I’d love to have our mother and father with us but I know they’d be grateful we’ve gone on and carried on and cared for others. My mother always said, you stand up for truth and righteousness and set the example,” said Carolynn.
During the Sept. 14 meeting, Mayor Brian Saunderson also put forward an amendment to have the current town council offer an apology on behalf of the town to Wilson family, which was passed at committee and council.
“It was a perfect example how people in positions should stand and apologize,” said Sylvia. “It was spontaneous and sincere. For him to acknowledge that in words with an apology... do you know how long we’ve been writing to Ottawa for an apology to our people?”
“He’s a good example for others to follow in other communities,” she said.
“We’d like to thank him. It was an honour for us,” said Carolynn.
With files from Erika Engel.