Inducted: October 31, 2007
She did it to fill in a serious gap in local history and to give students here an accurate picture of the creative roles taken by black citizens in the development of Chatham and Kent County, along with a better understanding of their sacrifices and hardships.
This outstanding historian first started to research the dramatic story of the Underground Railway and the people it brought to this area when her son, Drew was given a history assignment in school. It is his recollection that he was at Queen Elizabeth II Public School when he was asked to do an essay on black history in Chatham. When he went to the Chatham Public Library, he found there was nothing available on that topic.
It was then that his mother, Gwen Robinson, volunteered to help him, and her research led to an interest in black history, and eventually an obsessive determination to remedy that blank space in local records. Mother and son discovered material on John Brown and his association with Chatham, and on prominent black citizens like Martin Delaney, famous locally, and in the United States where he founded the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Drew did well on that school project, and went on to Chatham Collegiate Institute and to graduate from Wilfrid Laurier University. Scholarships encouraged him to study Law in the U.S.A., and he is now an Assistant District Attorney in the Tenth Judicial District in Cleveland, Tennessee. He says of his mother, “I am very proud of her!” He is proud too, of his father, John Robinson, who helped her as she delved deeper and deeper into black history. Coincidentally for the Robinson’s, Tennessee is the southern State where the Robbins side of Gwen’s family, once slaves, originated.
On the other side of her family, Gwen is a descendant of free men and women: of Hans Schad, a Hessian mercenary soldier, who fought on the side of the British, was wounded, and married the black woman who nursed him back to health. Some of the result of her original research is in her book, “Seek the Truth”, published in 1994, which gives new and fascinating insights into black history. Her foreword to the book: “It is the sincere hope of the writer that this book will shed some light on a portion of history which is conspicuous by its absence from most of today’s history books, namely the positive aspects of non-whites in bygone years.”
It was intended to give young white students “an accurate understanding of the problems faced by blacks and of the creative roles played by them in the history of Chatham”. For young black students, it was a pride-engendering reminder of the important part played by Kent County’s black population in the development of a prosperous community.
Gwen was born in Chatham, the daughter of Charles and Constance Robbins. She received her early education at the North Buxton School, and at Merlin High School and Chatham Collegiate Institute.
Her marriage to John Robinson, a Canadian postal employee for 32 years, was followed by the birth of five sons. For many years she was a home maker and hair dresser, until her son’s history assignment opened a new and fascinating career for her, as a writer, researcher and above all, historian.
Daniel Milne came to Chatham in the winter of 2002 to work with her in the expansion of the black history exhibit she had created at the Wish Centre. It took a year for them to compile the information necessary to apply for a Trillium Grant to develop their project into what has become Black Mecca, a fascinating exhibit of some of the developments and interesting characters involved in black history here.
Daniel said working with Gwen was a new experience for him. In the three years they worked together, he found it a revelation. “It was the first time I had worked with someone who was completely honest, completely straightforward and completely committed to what she was doing.”
“Her knowledge just blew me away. What to her was just common knowledge, would be new and fascinating to anyone else.” Daniel now teaches history at Sandwich Secondary School.
At one time in the 19th Century, the population of Chatham was almost 35 per cent black, and some of the most prestigious positions – like that of Coroner – were held by its black citizens. Gwen felt that many things from that period in Kent’s history should be taught to county students.
Gwen has been instrumental in “twinning” Chatham with the community of Harper’s Ferry, the scene of John Brown’s famous, ill-fated attempt to win freedom for the slaves. She enthusiastically embraces new projects to enhance black history. On August 29th, 2007, a crowd of dignitaries joined Gwen at the Wish Centre to launch “The Promised Land”, a long-term project to delve into black history of this area.
Gwen and John have five sons: Brad (Frances); Drew (Carolyn); Brent (Lisa); Mitchell (Melissa) and Scott (Sabrina). There are eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren. She and John are active members of Union Baptist Church, Chatham Township.
Gwen has won many awards and accolades. She went to Edmonton in 2003 to receive the prestigious Griot Award, for outstanding volunteer services. She received the Sertoma Service to Mankind Award for 1999-2000; and the Chatham and District Chamber of Commerce “Citizen of the Year” Award in 2006, for all she has done for the community.
“She is”, a good friend said, “a good Christian woman, who saw something that needed to be done, and did it.”