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The Niagara Military Museum – Black Military History of Niagara Travelling Exhibit

Jim and Kathy Doherty of the Niagara Military Museum have always had a passion for storytelling. Together, they developed the Black Military History of Niagara Travelling Exhibit to share the stories of Black Canadians who have served. "We want to present a diverse voice, to ensure today's youth can see themselves in these soldiers' shoes."

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Funded in part by Veterans Affairs Canada’s Commemorative Partnership Program, the project highlights the major role played by Black Canadians in our country’s military history, with a focus on contributions from the Niagara and nearby regions. The exhibit is tailored to youth and features personal stories of service from various conflicts, including the First and Second World Wars, Korean War, and Afghanistan.

The exhibition was initially scheduled to travel through elementary and high‑schools across the Niagara region, but the Museum was forced to adapt due to the COVID‑19 pandemic. “We had to re‑think our initial plan and design the exhibit so it was hands‑free,” says Jim. Since the onset of COVID‑19, the exhibit has travelled to a select number of schools across the region, following pandemic guidelines. The Museum has also developed an online resource book and presentation that features study guides, fact sheets, and in‑depth information on the Veterans who are featured. “We really wanted to ensure the information was accessible in a COVID‑19 environment,” says Kathy.

Where it all began

For Jim and Kathy, the inspiration for the project started with Wilma Morrison, a leader in preserving Black history in the Niagara region. Jim notes that it was Morrison’s passion and prior work that really launched the project. “She was the guiding light, the steadying influence… having her on board really opened doors for us. She was much more than a mentor.” Wilma Morrison passed away in April 2020, and the Doherty’s have dedicated the exhibit in her memory.

Importance of sharing stories

Donna Ford stands proudly in front of the exhibit featuring her Uncle, James Grant.

The knowledge and inspiration from Morrison are really what drove the mandate of the exhibit – ensuring the stories of these brave Canadians were shared with a wider audience. Stories like those of James Grant, the first Canadian of African descent to be awarded with the Military Medal in the First World War. Grant was born on 29 April 1897, in St. Catharines, Ontario, within the Niagara region. As a Field Artillery Driver, he was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery during the Battle of Passchendaele.

Jim and Kathy worked closely with James Grant’s niece, Donna Ford, to develop content for the exhibit. “When I hear Donna refer to James as ‘Uncle Jimmy,’ it really hits home,” says Kathy.

Shining a light on modern conflicts

Sergeant Stephen Thomas is excited a younger generation will have access to these historical accounts.

Although much of the exhibit focusses on contributions from the First and Second World War, the Museum wanted to also put a lens on more modern conflicts. The travelling exhibit features a panel on the service of Sergeant Stephen Thomas, who served in Afghanistan. He’s excited a younger generation will have access to these historical accounts. “I wish our textbooks touched more on the individual heroes, from all walks of life… especially in Southern Ontario, where diversity is our strength,” says Thomas.

Impact across the Niagara region

Even with the challenges the COVID‑19 pandemic has brought to the project, Jim is happy to see the perceived impact the project is having in the Niagara region. “Community members are really embracing it. We’ve heard from schools that featured the exhibit. Students are really interested in the content, and are taking it in.”

Not long after the exhibit was revealed, Donna Bright from nearby Fort Erie, Ontario reached out to Jim and Kathy. It turns out Donna Bright’s Great‑Great Uncle, John Bright, was also the recipient of a Military Medal for his efforts during the Battle of Passchendaele. “Imagine our excitement to find out that John Bright was also the recipient of a Military Medal,” says Kathy.

And it’s also evident the travelling exhibit has had an impact within the local Black community. Rochelle Bush is a freedom seeker descendent, born and raised in St. Catharines, Ontario. For 25 years, she’s worked to preserve, protect and highlight stories related to Black history in the Niagara region.

Bush is quite pleased with the work of the Niagara Military Museum. “It’s fantastic, and it’s been a long time coming. I can remember when I attended school, every time it was Remembrance Day, we didn’t see a likeness of ourselves.” Bush is ecstatic the stories of these brave Canadians from diverse backgrounds will be told for years to come. “I’m just so happy the information is out there – not just for our region, but for the broader Canadian community – youth will be aware it was not just a white man’s war.”

Honouring Canada’s Veterans

Veterans Affairs Canada is committed to honouring those who served Canada during times of war, military conflict and peace, and to keeping the memory of their achievements and sacrifices alive for all Canadians. Funding is available to organizations that undertake commemorative initiatives through the Commemorative Partnership Program.

Date published: 2021-02-08


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