Black History in Toronto
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Toronto has had a Black population from its earliest days as a settlement. Black groups have included United Empire Loyalists, Americans escaping enslavement, rural Canadians moving from Nova Scotia or southwestern Ontario, Jamaicans following economic opportunities, and Somalis and Ghanaians establishing themselves in a new land. Each individual and each community has contributed to the growth of Toronto as a unique city.
Finding documentary evidence of the Black population in the City Archives can be a challenge, particularly from the early years. Here are a few samples from a history that is still being uncovered.
Petition from people of colour residing in the City of Toronto to His Worship the Mayor of Toronto
October 14, 1841
City of Toronto Archives
Series 1081, Item 785
Transcription of Petition to Mayor
His Worship the Mayor of Toronto
The petition of the undersigned, People of Colour; residing in the City of Toronto: Humbly Sheweth;
That your Petitioners are informed that a Company of “Circus Actors” from the United States (now travelling in this Province) are shortly to visit this City for the purpose of performing &c.
That Your Petitioners from the general and almost invariable practice of such Actors in their performances, have good reason to apprehend annoyances and insults, in the manner they endeavour to make the Coloured man appear ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of their audience. Your Petitioners would humbly pray that Your Worship would be pleased to prevent the occurrence of such annoyances and insults, as Your Petitioners believe that such attempted Exhibitions of the African Character are not at all relished or approved of by the sensible and well thinking Inhabitants of this Community.
And Your Petitioners as in duty bound, will ever pray.
Toronto, 14th October 1841.
(James Johnson and 28 additional signatures attached)
This is one of several such petitions presented to City Council in the 1840s. In 1840, Council passed a by-law that enable it to license travelling theatrical groups and circuses. In July 1843, Council refused to let a circus perform unless performers promised not to “sing songs or perform acts that would be insulting to ‘the gentlemen of colour’ of the city.” (The Blacks in Canada: A History, Robin Winks, 1971, p. 150)
In 1846 and 1850, the city directories identify some Torontonians as “coloured.” These directories are a valuable source of information about the city’s Black population at the time.
Hubbard was a successful entrepreneur and a baker who owned a company that sold ovens of his own design. He was elected alderman of Ward 4 (now approximately Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, between University Avenue and Bathurst Street) in 1893.
Hubbard was the city’s first Black politician. He served for 14 years. From 1904 to 1907 he was the Vice Chairman of the Board of Control, a position second only to the mayor. The Archives holds Hubbard’s papers, which include letters he received, and newspaper clippings. These papers illuminate both the ceremonial and the everyday duties of a respected municipal politician of his day.
In the early 20th century, many young single women moved to the city to find work. Concerns were raised about the physical and moral safety of women living alone. Organizations such as the YWCA provided accommodations at reasonable cost. Ontario House was specifically for Black women. Like other YWCA buildings, it probably provided both dormitory-style and private bedrooms, and sitting rooms for daytime occupations.
The photographer’s son identified this church as being on Terauley (now Bay) Street. It may have been the Agnes Street Methodist Church, which was on the southeast corner of Bay and Dundas (formerly Agnes) streets.
The Globe and Mail of June 1, 1946, reported on this event: “All four Toronto Negro churches and various Negro clubs and associations joined in a Welcome Home Banquet for Negro veterans of the Second Great War last night at Afro Community Christ Church, Shaw Street. More than 100 veterans attended. Pastor of Christ Church, Rev. Dr. C.A. Stewart, joined in welcome to Sgt. F.N. Richards, RCAMC; Cpl. L. McCurtis, and SQMS H. T. Shepherd, MBE.”
This photograph was taken at the dedication of a plaque in memory of the members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, an all-Black non-combat battalion that served in World War I. The plaque was (and still is) in the main hall of Queen’s Park.
Rev. Mrs. H.F. Logan and Rev. H.F. Logan, who spearheaded the campaign for the plaque, are at left of centre. Also included in the photograph are Rt. Rev. Samuel R. Drake, General Superintendent of the British Methodist Episcopal Conference; Ernest Charles Drury, Prime Minister of Ontario; and Sir Henry Pellatt.
Donald Willard Moore (1891-1994) was described by his friend and former Human Rights Commissioner Bromley Armstrong as “the leader, the gentle giant, the man with the iron fist in a velvet glove.” He was a community leader and civil rights activist who fought to change Canada’s exclusionary immigration laws.
At the Archives we work to preserve the history of all Torontonians. If you have documents such as photographs, letters, diaries, books, business records, or anything else that reflects life in Toronto in any era, and you would like to see them stored safely and made available to anyone interested in history, we would happy to talk with you about donating them to the Archives.