She died three years before Confederation but had such a profound impact on Annapolis Royal they dedicated a monument to her across the street at Garrison Cemetery on July 1.
More than 20 of her descendants were there at the emotional unveiling, bringing tears and smiles -- pride in Rose and pride in being her descendant family.
It’s a long story that starts on March 13, 1774 in Virginia when Rose was born to enslaved parents who 10 years later moved to Annapolis Royal as Black Loyalists.
“The deep, deep roots of our history are unparalleled in this country. It’s a fabric of many, many cultures,” said Annapolis Royal Mayor Bill MacDonald at the church gathering, “and Black Empire Loyalists were a big part of that.”
The monument was a community effort that started with New York playwright George Cameron Grant who discovered Rose Fortune when he visited Annapolis Royal and took part in Alan Melanson’s famous Graveyard Tour that raises money for the Historical Association of Annapolis Royal. He was so moved by Fortune’s story he wrote a play and vowed she would have a monument.
Fortune, with her wheelbarrow, transported luggage and goods from ships to hotels and businesses. She also started a wake-up service at inns and was known for helping to keep the peace. Many consider her the first policewoman in Canada.
MacDonald said there is evidence that suggests she was involved in freeing slaves.
At the dedication ceremony, hosted by the historical association, MacDonald described Fortune as a complex, important, remarkable person.
“She was a significant character in this town,” he said. “She was a woman of substance, of character. She was an entrepreneur at times when certainly there weren’t very many women entrepreneurs. Not very many Black women entrepreneurs.”
He visited sculptor Brad Hall’s shop when the artist was at work on the sculpture.
“This is a monument upon which you meditate. This is a monument upon which you consider the weight of history on this woman. The significance of the complex society she was born into. The complex society in which she grew up, and lived in, and worked in, and thrived in, and struggled in,” said MacDonald.
“But there are things about this monument that reflect the hard beginnings of her life – the hard realities of her life and others who came here after the end of the American War of Independence. There’s the melding of steel, wood, stone, imprint. It’s not a polished product. It’s a product that reflects the struggle, challenges, lineage, slavery -- and I can only say to all of you here, when we go across the road to the monument touch it, feel it … and contemplate this remarkable, remarkable woman who with each passing day is more recognized for who she really was.”
The monument is, in fact, Fortune’s wheelbarrow, wharf, and headstone made into a bench.
He said there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Rose was a conductor on the underground railway.
“When you’re sitting there, and you’re contemplating Rose Fortune and her life, also consider the incredible impact that this woman had on the lives of others,” MacDonald said. “And you know what? You might just hear the tap of her cane coming down the street.”
Rose Fortune’s legacy in the area includes names like Burrell, Currie, Bailey, Stevenson, Francis, and Lewis – including Daurene Lewis, perhaps Canada’s most famous Black woman. She died suddenly in 2013 at the age of 69.
“Rose Fortune left large shoes to fill and Daurene filled them well seven generations later,” said Eileen Kelleher, a longtime friend of Lewis. “They shared the same entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to community.”
Lewis was a nurse and educator, owned a weaving studio, and in 1984 became the first Black female mayor in Canada.
“On this Canada Day I am reminded of our trip to Ottawa in 2003 when she received our country’s highest honour, the Order of Canada,” said Kelleher. “How proud we all were of her. The Order of Canada motto is ‘They desire a better country.’ Without a doubt both Rose Fortune and her granddaughter Daurene Lewis epitomized that motto.”
She described both as trailblazers who improved the community and country.
“How fortunate we are that Rose came to Annapolis Royal in the 1870s and that we can celebrate this remarkable woman and her accomplished descendants today.”
Durlene Melanson with the Historical Association of Annapolis Royal surprised the crowd by announcing that she had been able to order Rose Fortune stamps from Canada Post and had a limited number to present to Fortune’s descendants. A second order was expected and those who attended the monument dedication would each receive one.
Did You Know?
The ferry between Digby and Saint John, NB is named the Fundy Rose after Rose Fortune. The original request to name the ferry in honour of Rose Fortune came from Kathryn Theriault on behalf of Inglewood, a small community north of Bridgetown. Theriault was at the July 1 monument unveiling.