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Mennonites are generally known to be pacifists. To celebrate this, the Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan (MHSS) tries each November to have a Peace Event on or near Remembrance Day to hear stories of peace-building. This year that event was held on Saturday, November 12, 2016, in the Fellowship Centre at Bethany Manor, Saskatoon, on LaRonge Road.
Dr. Timothy Epp, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Redeemer College, in Ontario, was invited to share about his research on how Blacks and Mennonites have got along as neighbours in Canada. His work has been featured in various publications, including a recent issue of the Saskatchewan Mennonite Historian. Originally born in Rosthern, Dr. Epp plans to write a book in the near future.
He entitled his presentation, “Roots and Routes: Blacks and Mennonites in Canada.” He began with Mennonites and Blacks being neighbours in Germantown, PA, USA as early as 1688, and some of those Pennsylvania Mennonites had helped Blacks escape to Canada via the underground railroad in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He was able to show that Blacks had been capable farmers among the Mennonite farmers of Upper Canada, or Ontario.
At first Dr. Epp thought this was a unique but small episode in our history, but then he got some connections to people from Saskatchewan, particularly Berny Wiens, who reported that he had grown up with Blacks in the area around Herschel and Fiske, SK. Berny introduced Epp to his friends from the large, extended LaFayette clan. Then the contacts began to snowball. Even before the meeting began he had met people who told him they had also grown up with Blacks in their communities at Aberdeen, Glenbush, and Blaine Lake. A good turnout of about 150 people listened intently to the stories Dr. Epp told in his presentation.
Then a panel of guests was invited to sit on the platform, passing a microphone back and forth to answer questions from the audience. The guests were Berny Wiens, Two LaFayette sisters, Carol, (a psychiatric nurse), and Vera, and their cousin Ruby, a social worker. Also Murray Mayes from Elrose, though originally from Maidstone. He was a shy man who, once he got going, was happy to share that one of his 7 children, is Reuben Mayes, of football fame, and a number of his other children work in academia and government jobs. One or two of the panelists could relate an instance or two of racism, but some could honestly say they had not experienced any while growing up.
Instead of just answering questions, however, this turned into an interesting story-telling session. Not only from the panel but also from people in the audience, who got the roving microphone and told their own stories of sharing food and events with Blacks in their original farming communities like Glenbush, and Aberdeen. These triggered more memories and stories from the panel members.
Tina Siemens, from Fiske, had taught seven of the LaFayette children in school, and greeted them as good friends.
One woman from Drake held up a small photo album, which had been her mother's. It held more photos like the one she had given to Dr. Epp, from her mother's summers teaching DVBS in these communities and staying as a guest of Grandma Mayes, a well-known, and loved mid-wife in that area.
More and more this afternoon felt like a family reunion with friendly reminiscing and story-telling.
The MHSS Board members, Dick Braun and Leonard Doell, who were the organizers in charge, let it go on longer than planned before they drew the program to a close, and invited everyone to stay for coffee and cookies and to continue their visiting informally. Many commented how much they had enjoyed this Peace Event.
Dr. Timothy Epp was extremely pleased with the excellent participation, and made an announcement at the end, requesting
hat each one who had any memories or stories of Blacks and Mennonites as neighbours would at write them down, or at least give
him their contact information so that he could connect with them further and get all the details for his research and book. This
invitation also applies to anyone reading this report. You may reach him here;
Redeemer University College
777 Garner Rd E.,
Ancaster, Ontario, L9K 1J4
(phone: 905-648-2139 x4247).