Black History in Early Toronto*

By: Daniel G. Hill

From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 28-30
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario

*This is an abridged version of an address given to the Black History Conference held at the University of Toronto, February 18, 1978.

Slavery in Upper Canada existed before the separation of the upper and lower provinces in 1791. A British Act of 1790 allowed new settlers to bring slaves into what would become Upper Canada at a value of "forty shillings for each one." There were, however, only five or six hundred slaves in Canada during the eighteenth century. Blacks and Pawnee Indians made up the slave population and for the most part they were located around the Niagara District. Here are a few examples of slave advertisements found in Upper Canada newspapers:

July 11, 1793: Five Dollars Reward

Ran away from subscriber on Wednesday the 25th of June last, a Negro manservant named John, who ever will take up the said Negro man and return him to his master shall receive the above reward and all necessary charges.

Thomas Butler, Niagara

August 17, 1793:

Ran away from the subscriber a few weeks ago a Negro wench named Sue: This is therefore to forewarn all manner of persons from harboring said wench under penalties of the laws.

James Clark, Senior, Niagara

Many distinguished persons were slave owners, including Peter Russell, who held positions in the executive and legislative councils and became administrator of Upper Canada; Secretary William Jarvis; and Upper Canada' s first Solicitor General, Colonel James Gray. Indeed, six of the sixteen legislators in the first Parliament of Upper Canada were slave owners. In 1793 the first Parliament of the Province of Upper Canada passed legislation intended to contain slavery. There were strong feelings at the time favouring total abolition in the province. Governor Simcoe and his wife led the abolitionists, while a strong block of farmers and wealthy landowners maintained that slaves were essential to the agricultural welfare of the province. The 1793 Statute confirmed the ownership of slaves then held, but provided that the children of slaves, at the age of twenty-five would be set free. It also prohibited any extension of the slave trade into Upper Canada. Although compromise legislation, it is considered the first distinctly human rights statute explicitly dealing with slavery in the British Empire.

In 1799 in the town of York-as Toronto was then called- fifteen Blacks were enumerated, with no distinction between slaves and freedmen. In the same year a free Black, Peter Long, and ten members of his family lived east of the Don River, outside the town limits. The first Black businessmen were two contractors-Jack Mosee and William Willis-who ''under took [in 1799] to open a road from Yonge Street, York, westward through 'the Pinery'; and although at first the senior surveyor of the province found the road too narrow and improperly cleared, in time it was completed satisfactorily." In 1802 eighteen free Blacks were living in York, including six children. Several fought in the War of 1812, including Sam Edwards, a member of Cap tain Runchey' s Coloured Corps, and Solomon Albert, a gardener, who served earlier as a private in the 10th Regiment.

Slavery in Canada and the British Empire was completely abolished in 1833. Long before that time, however, this country had beome a haven for fugitive slaves from the United States. With the help of the abolitionist groups who created the famous Underground Railroad, thousands of Black people found their way into the Province of Upper Canada during the first sixty years of the nineteenth century. This number swelled especially during the decade 1850-60, after the enactment by the United States Congress, in 1850, of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act, which reversed previous judicial decisions granting freedom to escaped slaves reaching "free" states, providing instead for the return to slavery of any Blacks who were detected and claimed by their masters or agents. Estimates of the number of Blacks in Upper Canada, from 1850 to the end of the American Civil War in 1865, range from 35,000 to 50,000. Thus, the original Black community in Ontario can be traced first to slaves owned by well-to-do people and, subsequently, to refugees from American slavery. The following statement was found in the records of one old Toronto Black family:

The consequences of intolerable conditions induced many Negroes from Virginia to flee slavery and settle in Toronto. After settling, many accumulated wealth and real property. Others had come as free men and could trace their ancestry for several generations. In 1837 there were about 50 families of refugees settled in Toronto. Additions were made to the colony from time to time from most southern states until 1850 when almost every southern state was represented. The majority, however, were from Virginia, where many had been engaged in useful employment such as waiters, cooks, house servants, barbers, mechanics, hairdressers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and shoemakers. Many of them had brought sufficient means with them to purchase homes. They buiIt churches and organized benevolent and fraternal organizations. By Providence and industry, most of the Negroes not only secured homes of their own, but educated their children, and by loyalty to their adopted country and moral rectitude, they secured the respect and esteem of their fellow citizens, and left behind them a record of which their descendants need not be ashamed.

Most of the runaway slaves and freedmen who came to Ontario during the mid-nineteenth century had skills and trades, and having broken the bonds of servitude, they found in this city a social climate that allowed them to prosper. John Dunn, Receiver General for Upper Canada during the 1840s, stated in a letter to an American abolitionist that, ' 'Negroes ask for charity less than any other group and seem generally prosperous and industrious.'' This observation was certainly justified, for in Toronto alone-to say nothing of Windsor and Chatham where coloured communities also flourished-Blacks owned and operated three hotels and taverns, two livery stables, three restaurants, a hardware store and a women's dress shop. The very first ice houses in Toronto were started by two enter prising Blacks in the late 1840s-Mr. T.F. Carey and Mr. R.B. Richards. They drew their stock from the mill ponds north of what is now Bloor Street. Later they expanded their enterprises to four ice houses, a barber-shop and a bathhouse. W.H. Edwards also operated a successful barber-shop at 102 and then 77 King Street as early as 1839, with rooms set apart for ladies and children for perfuming and barbering . He advertised that he used, "Vegetable Extract, for Renovating and Beautifying the Hair, cleansing it from all Dandruff, dust, etc. and giving it a beautiful appearance without the slightest injury to the Hair or skin." A. T. Augusta, a Black doctor, opened up a Central Medical Hall at Yonge and Elm Streets, in which he offered dental, medical and pharmaceutical services to the public during the 1850s.

By mid 1850s there were nearly 1,000 Blacks in Toronto- a sizeable proportion of the total population of 47,000. W.R Abbott is perhaps Toronto s most noted example of a persecuted Black freedman who fled from the southern States seeking better condions in the North and then, despairing of the prejudice there, emigrated in 1835 to the town of York. Abbott could neither read nor write at first, but he had extraordinary mathematical ability and accumulated a fortune in real estate and the tobacco business before his death in 1875. He also reared a distinguished family. of his sons, Anderson Ruffin Abbott, became a medical doctor, graduating in the early 1860s from the Toronto Medical my, an affiliate of the University of Toronto. Bitter about slavery, he joined the Union Army and became one of eight Black surgeons to serve in the American Civil War. He subsequently returned to Canada to become Coroner of Kent County and Resident Physician at the Toronto General Hospital.

Independently wealthy, thanks to his father's real estate activities, Anderson Ruffin Abbott spent the last part of his life writing articles on a variety of subjects, including sharp attacks on prejudice and discrimination wherever it existed. The oldest Black institution in the city, now located on D'Arcy street is the First Baptist Church which was founded in 1826 when a dozen escaped slaves met on the shores of Toronto Bay and prayed. Worshipping at first outdoors, they had by 1827 expanded in number and leased the St. George' s Masonic Lodge for Sunday meetings. It is interesting to note that the Baptist faith was first brought to Toronto by Blacks, who were then joined by interested whites. Two other Black churches appeared between 1838-47.

Starting with a congregation of forty, the Colored Wesleyan movement to have arisen from the indignation of some of its original memers concerning the city's white Wesleyans-who were in fellowship and union with pro-slavery churches in the United South. By 1850 the Colored Wesleyans claimed over 100 members, and the church continued to function until 1875 when, finally, the deaths of many members and the loss of others who returned to the United States brought an end to the Colored Wesleyan movement. Also established in the 1840s was the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a branch of an American denomination founded in the late eighteenth century. One of the most significant contributions of those early Canadian Blacks who settled in Upper Canada was the establishment of two newspapers: "The Voice of the Fugitive", published in Windsor by a famous refugee named H.C. Bibb, and another refugee newspaper called The Provincial Freeman, founded in Toronto and later moved to Windsor. This latter abolitionist newspaper was very competently edited by a most remarkable and highly literate Black woman, Mary Ann Shadd, well known for her sharp tongue and biting editorials. Ms. Shadd was born of free parents in Wilmington, Delaware on October 9, 1823 and fled with her family to Canada. Mary Ann Shadd is acknowledged as the first Black newspaperwoman in North America and the publisher of Canada~s first anti-slavery newspaper. Perhaps she was the first woman publisher of a newspaper in Canada.

Thanks to Shadd and Bibb, we have some record of the history of thw period-the hopes, aspirations and problems of a new people in a strange new land. Both papers encouraged and assisted the fugee community in organizing benevolent and abolitionist groups; they counselled the refugees, advising them to enter local schools; they helped to organize vigilance committees against raiders who attempted to spirit runaway slaves back to the United States; they fought against schemes for segregating Blacks in Canada, and they urged the refugees to involve themselves in civic and municipal affairs. But life was not totally pleasant for refugees. Even in Toronto, they lived in the danger of being kidnapped and returned to the United States. Paul Gallego, a young Black writer, expressed concern about American slave owners who were tracking their ''property'' into Canada in the hope of kidnapping or having them extradited. A report appeared in the Toronto Parriot of July 3, 1840, that:

Two persons, Irishmen we believe by birth, but Yankeefied by habit, were charged on Thursday last, before Aldermen Gurnett and King, with an attempt to kidnap a coloured man whom they asserted to be their slave, and with drawing bowie knives on another person.
The parties after being suitably reprimanded by the sitting Aldermen for the brutal and cowardly practice of carrying bowie knives, and made aware that under Monarchical Institutions and British Laws, there existed no excuse for wearing such weapons, were severally fined Five Pounds, and held to bail for their future good conduct.

The Black community reacted to kidnapping attempts by forming vigilance committees and publishing notices warning all new comers that slave owners had their agents in the city.

Despite a rather well defined Black settlement in central Toronto during these early days, segregated schools and churches did not develop here as they did in the heavily populated Black communities of Windsor, Chatham and London. The southernmost cities of the province, terminals for the Underground Railroad, drew a large number of Blacks. They formed, and in a sense were pushed into, little ghettos, colonies and settlements outside those cities.

On the other hand, Blacks came into Toronto steadily but in smaller numbers. There were active abolitionist groups which met the refugees and assisted in their adjustment. In fact the old St. Lawrence Hall, now beautifully renovated, was a centre for anti-slavery meetings and for those groups helping to get Blacks established. And although there were Black churches and organizations, the refugees soon became accustomed to the integrated nature of institutions and social life in the city. They became anglicans and Wesleyans, and the more prosperous families moved unhindered from the central city to fine homes in the east end. The basic difference between other Canadian Black communities and the Toronto community in those early days, was that the Toronto Black population had never been identified historically as a poor, deprived or dependent class.

Perhaps the most famous Black figure of the late nineteenth century is William P. Hubbard, who was born here January 27, 1842, about two years after his family arrived from Virginia- freed slaves who had decided to exchange the oppressive climate in the United States for a new life. Hubbard attended the Toronto model School and then became a baker. During his lifetime-he lived to age ninety-three-he retained the skills of a master cakemaker. He also worked in his uncle' s livery business, serving as a driver for notables like George Brown of the Globe. At age fifty-one he launched a new career in politics, running in 1893 for alderman in Ward 4. On his first attempt he was defeated by eight votes, but he won the election of 1894 and thirteen consecutive annual elections. For four straight years, 1898-1901, his fellow council members elected him to the Board of Control. He won a fight to have controllers elected directly by the people and under the new system, from 1904-07, the voters elected him to the Board of Control. His colleagues elected him vice chairman of that board in 1904, and in that year, 1906 and 1907 he performed many duties as Acting Mayor. ''Alderman Hubbard on entering Council had to overcome color prejudice," a Globe editorialist wrote after the election of 1904, "but by his splendid defence of the public interest. . . he forged his way to the front rapidly."

Hubbard became an uncompromising champion of cheap, publicly-owned electric power. He fought for this goal alongside Adam Beck, who founded the Ontario hydroelectric system and was later knighted for his service. Beck said he regarded Hubbard as "always an ally.'' Hubbard's chairmanship of a special power committee consumed most of his time and interest. He led the effort to win provincial legislation to enable the city to generate, develop, produce and lease electric power-a move that established the Toronto Hydro Electric System. Furthermore, it was Hubbard who persuaded the city to acquire the Toronto Islands. When rich laundry owners tried to drive the small Chinese laundries out of business by asking for exorbitant municipal licenes, Hubbard instead got a gradual increase in fees. which the Chinese laundrymen were able to meet without hardship. About hirty years after Hubbard's death in 1935, thousands of Blacks -from the West Indies and the United States- would enter Ontario, some to make their mark on public life. But few would know the debt of gratitude owed to the bright, tough and progressive politician who, years before, had surmounted all barriers of race and left for them a legacy of public accomplishment. After the American Civil War, the Black popullation in Upper Canada dropped considerably in numbers. Perhaps the best indication of what happened to the community is found io the writings of Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott:
"The constant drain to which our population has been subjected since the close of the Civil War precludes the possibility of any very great increase in wealth or numbers. Our youth evince a strong disposition to cross the border line as soon as they acquire sufficient knowledge and experience to make a living. In this way we are impoverished and you [Americans] are correspondingly benefitted. By the process of absorption and expatriation the color line will eventually fade out in Canada."

Dr. Abbott did not anticipate the influx of British West Indians and Americans, brought in by railroad and industrial interests, which began in Toronto and other cities shortly after the turn of the century, and which continued until the mid- 1970s, nor could he have known of the rich variety of skills and culture which these new Black Canadians brought with them.

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