The Black Community in St. John’s Ward
An Essay Marking Black History Month in the City of Toronto
February 2017 | By John Lorinc1
During the summer of 1858, the raucous taverns of St. John’s Ward, the working class enclave that extended north of Queen Street and west of Yonge, boiled with intense, and often fractious, political debate.
With conservative and reform-minded factions waging a see-saw battle for control of the legislature of pre-Confederation Canada, politicians from different parties had come to the neighbourhood looking for votes, including those of the significant number of Black residents who had been settling there since the 1840s.
Toronto, at the time, had a population of 47,000, of whom approximately one thousand were Black, according censuses conducted in 18562 and 1861.3 About half lived in the southern section of St. John’s Ward, which extended from Yonge to University (then known as College), and from Queen north to Bloor.4 Dubbed “The Noble Ward,” the area – now home to Nathan Phillips Square and the institutional buildings north and south of Dundas — was known for its rowdy saloons and the Orange lodges that served the Irish Protestants who dominated Toronto’s public life.
The city’s Black community was hardly homogenous in its political outlook. Some more established and affluent members steadfastly supported the conservative Tories and the British crown, while others backed reformers, like the newspaper publisher and MP George Brown, who used the pages of The Globe, the paper he founded in 1844, to back causes like the separation of church and state, representation by population, and the abolition of slavery in the United States.5
Indeed, Brown, who grew up in New York, had lent his support to the many abolitionist organizations that sprang during the 1840s and 1850s in Toronto, which had become a destination for hundreds of refugees fleeing slavery.6
One of the Black Torontonians who found himself attracted to Brown’s politics was a young man named Francis Griffin Simpson. Born in Schenectady, New York, in 1830, he’d come to Toronto in the mid-1850s and set himself up as a shoemaker. Within a few years, he was working out of a modest cottage at 26 Elizabeth Street.7
The young newcomer wasted little time inserting himself in the city’s civic life. He served as vice-president of the “Moral and Mental Improvement Society (African),” a Black debating society that met Monday evenings in a store at 120 Yonge, just north of Adelaide. Simpson also was active in assisting refugees get settled, often introducing the men to John Tinsley, a prosperous Black building contractor on Agnes Street (now Dundas). The Virginia-born Tinsley, described many years later in The Globe as the “celebrated patriarch of the coloured community,”8 hired newcomers and put them to work on construction projects.
Beyond this work, Simpson threw himself into politics, helping George Brown round up support among Black voters living in St. John’s Ward. That meant turning up in rowdy local halls and speaking out during hard-fought nomination battles. On August 8, 1858, Simpson found himself at the notorious tavern and bowling alley9 owned by “Captain Bob” Moodie, a rough-hewn mariner regarded as the area’s chief power broker (he also served as the alderman).10 According to The Globe’s account, forty Black residents, as well as many other local voters, showed up to choose between two rival candidates. But the meeting spiraled into arguments and fights. Simpson sought unsuccessfully to rally the participants to Brown’s side, and pledged to do his “utmost” to secure a victory for the abolitionist publisher.11
The following month, Simpson came to another political meeting hosted by Brown himself, and also geared at Black electors. This time, The Globe reported, there was little dissent. As the meeting wound down, Simpson moved a motion backing Brown, whose parliamentary faction briefly held power but then lost it to the Tories. Brown, he said, deserves the “support of us as coloured electors.”12
A couple of weeks later, Simpson appeared at yet another political organizing meeting in St. John’s Ward, this one at Welch’s Tavern on Elizabeth Street.13 For someone relatively new to the city and not even 20, Simpson seemed intent on making his mark. His words, in later years, would reach well beyond the confines of his working class neighbourhood.
Canadian colonialists owned slaves well into the early 19th century, but the practice was gradually constrained by judicial rulings. Slavery in Canada had all but ended by the 1820s, almost a decade before the British parliament formally abolished slavery throughout the colonies as of August 1, 1834.14
At the time, many Black residents lived and worked near the municipal market (now St. Lawrence Market).15 But as the exodus from the U.S. began to gather momentum due to increasingly aggressive fugitive slave laws and other incidents that further destabilized the lives of enslaved people, Canada West’s Black population grew. Many refugees settled in small communities in south-western Ontario. In Toronto, the expanding Black community shifted west and then north, to streets like York, and eventually Sayer (now Chestnut) and Centre. By the 1830s, the city even had two Black churches – the African Baptist, at Queen and Victoria, and the African Methodist Church, at Richmond (then Hospital Street) and York.16
Despite the mythology that later accrued around the Underground Railroad and Canada as a kind of promised land of freedom, the Black refugees who arrived in places like Chatham, Oro or other small Canada West (Ontario) towns experienced significant hostility and overt racism from white settlers.
“Blacks in the colony realized only a very constrained freedom,” observes University of Waterloo historian Julie Roberts. “Being black meant having unequal access to land and occupation. It meant segregated schools, churches and voluntary associations.”17 As University of Ottawa doctoral candidate Kristin McLaren noted in a recent journal article about the forced segregation of Black students in Canada West’s education system, “The discrimination [Black refugees] faced in their daily lives and their exclusion from social institutions such as churches and schools is for the most part ignored or misrepresented.”18
But according to current and contemporary accounts, Toronto seemed to be an exception. “Toronto,” as McLaren writes, “was perhaps the one place where segregation in public education was never the norm.”
The city, in fact, had become accustomed to large influxes of very poor newcomers. In 1847, at the height of the Irish potato famine, 38,000 Irish migrants, mostly Protestants, arrived in Toronto, which then had a population of just 20,000.19 The Black population, though only a fraction of that size, was also growing quickly as tensions over slavery in the U.S. intensified. In 1840, Toronto’s Anglican archbishop John Strachan commissioned a young Black man and former student, Peter Gallego, to conduct a census of Toronto’s Black residents; he counted 525.20 Within 15 years, that number had almost doubled, with over half of city’s 973 Black residents living in St. John’s Ward.21 (With a population of almost 7,700, St. John’s had become the most populous of the city’s seven wards; the vast majority of its residents came from Ireland or the British Isles.)
The area’s Black community buzzed with both abolitionist organizing and the work of community volunteer groups, such as the Ladies Coloured Fugitive Association, that had formed to assist refugees who were fleeing the U.S. south in ever growing numbers because of the Second Fugitive Slave Act (1850). That law allowed slave-owners to dispatch mercenaries to re-capture those who’d fled and imposed heavy penalties on anyone who helped. (During the pre-Civil War years, there were persistent rumours about American bounty hunters who stayed in Toronto hotels, looking to kidnap fugitive slaves.22)
The mounting turmoil in the U.S. drew the attention and involvement of white Torontonians, at least in part because of the media coverage George Brown provided. Then, in 1852, the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” drew a mass reading audience, in Toronto and elsewhere, with her epic tale of several Kentucky slaves who escaped to Canada. Brown serialized portions of the novel in The Globe and a Toronto publisher sold large numbers.23
Meanwhile, Black community leaders, and not just those living in St. John’s Ward, repeatedly pressed City Council and the colonial legislature to oppose public displays of bigotry, performances of racist minstrel shows and legislative proposals to segregate public schools by race across Canada West.24 Anti-slavery lecturers, including Fredrick Douglass, came to Toronto on speaking tours, sometimes choosing to appear in the Black churches in The Ward in order to draw a crowd.
Indeed, the handful of Black churches played a crucial social and political role, providing space and resources to organizing, education and self-help efforts. Besides the two older churches mentioned above, a pair of newer ones were built in St John’s Ward to serve the growing Black community that had formed north of Queen Street: the British Methodist Episcopal (BME), on Sayer (later Chestnut) Street, and the Agnes Street Baptist Church.25The BME, initially established in 1838 as a small wooden chapel by five men who lived on Sayer, traced its roots to the African Methodist Episcopal church, the first American Black denomination, which was founded in Philadelphia in the late 18th century. Many Black residents lived in the blocks surrounding the BME, the later foundations of which were found beneath a parking lot during a 2015 archeological excavation.26
By the eve of the U.S. Civil War, the condition of Canada’s Black community had began to draw attention in the U.S., with partisans on either side of the abolition fight making competing claims and counter-accusations about whether Canada was a promised land or a miserable place. In 1856, Benjamin Drew, a Boston abolitionist, was invited to Canada by a Canadian anti-slavery group to interview former slaves living in Toronto and elsewhere. The resulting book, “A North-Side View of Slavery: The Refugee,”27 offered testimony from those who had survived slavery. As Drew wrote in his preface, “The narratives were gathered promiscuously from persons whom the author met with in the course of a tour through the cities and settlements of Canada West. While his informants talked, the author wrote.” While he traveled to Windsor, London, Hamilton, St. Catharine’s and other cities, Drew credits Francis Simpson for helping to arrange interviews with ten men in Toronto, “Many of the colored people own the houses in which they dwell, and some have acquired valuable estates. No distinction exists in Toronto, in regard to school privileges. One of the students in the Normal School was a fugitive slave, and colored youths are attending lectures in the University,” Drew observed. “Their condition is such as to … afford encouragement to the friends of emancipation everywhere. A portion of them sustain a lyceum or debating club (which is attended by both sexes) where debates are held, and original essays are read.”28
One interview is with William Howard, who’d been born into slavery in Baltimore, fled to the northern U.S. at age 27, but continued to Canada to reunite with friends.
“I expected to work for a living,” he told Drew. “I could not be stopped from working. Canada is the best place that ever I saw: I can make more money here than anywhere else I know of. The colored people, taken as a whole, are as industrious as any people you will find. They have a good deal of ambition to go forward, and take a good stand in the community. I know several who own houses and lands. They are a very temperate people.”29
Six years after Drew’s book came out, and with Union Army forces poised to win the U.S. Civil War, another American came to Toronto, also with the goal of determining how free Black society functioned. Samuel Gridley Howe, a Boston physician and advocate for the blind, had been named to the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission (AFIC), which was set up in March, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war. The AFIC’s three commissioners were to travel to the Caribbean, the American West and Canada West to determine how free Black communities functioned.
Howe arrived in Toronto on September 5, and set to work interviewing both prominent white figures – among them George Brown, Egerton Ryerson and University of Toronto president John McCaul – and several Black residents, including barber John J. Cary, carpenter Thomas Smallwood, and Francis Simpson.
Fifteen years after he’d been so embroiled in those charged political meetings in the taverns of St. John’s Ward, Simpson offered a nuanced and clear-eyed evaluation of life in Toronto. By contrast to the U.S., he told Howe, it was difficult to earn a lot of money in Toronto. While there was no shortage of prejudice, Simpson said, the law and the courts provided protection. Black residents, he added, experienced no discrimination in the city’s schools and churches.
The Black community, Simpson continued, had a diversity that reflected the city generally. “We have shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths and tobacco manufacturers. There are three benevolent societies among the colored people — one male society, and two female societies. Then there is one literary and social society. There are men here who have been here between thirty and forty years.”
He also confided that he had heard some Black residents were talking about going back to the U.S., and their homes, once the war ended. Yet he also mentioned others for whom the exodus had brought not just freedom but prosperity.
“A gentleman came to me a little while ago and said, ‘How do you do, Mr. Simpson?’ ‘Well,’ said I, ‘I am pretty well, how do you do?’ ‘I am well, thank you,’ said he. ‘But you have the advantage of me,’ I said; ‘I don’t know you.’ ‘You don’t know me? You don’t know Butler?’ said he. Said I — ‘Yes, Sir, I know a great many Butlers, but I don’t know you.’ Then he went on to tell me that he was a poor fugitive in 1853 and came to me in the office, and I assisted him, and although he had never seen me since, the moment he saw me, he knew me. He said I told him the best thing he could do was to go away into the country and see what he could do; that he did so, ‘and now,’ said he, ‘I have got a little hotel and boarding-house in Hamilton, that I own myself, and my property amounts to some $1,500.’”
When Howe wrapped up his fact-finding work, he and the other two AFIC commissioners wrote up their report, which they presented to Lincoln Administration officials and the U.S. Senate. The document, which included some of Simpson’s observations about Toronto, informed one of the first post-Civil War reconstruction programs, the Freedman’s Bureau, that sought to assist emancipated African Americans transition to life after slavery.
In the years after the end of the Civil War (1865), the Black community in Canada did, in fact, shrink as many former refugees returned to the U.S. As Winks noted, the 1871 Black population in post-confederation Canada was a “fraction” of what it had been in the 1850s and early 1860s.31
Yet there’s indirect evidence that the Black community in and around St. John’s Ward did grow (Canadian censuses didn’t record race after 1861). The British Methodist Episcopal Church, at 94 Chestnut Street, completed an expansion in 1871. A little over twenty years later, the BME again grew, this time with an $8,000 capital infusion raised mainly from its congregants. The enlarged brick church, The Globe reported, featured two formidable spires, a sloped sanctuary for 600 parishioners and a vaulted ceiling.32
As for Simpson, he moved in the 1860s from his cottage on Elizabeth Street to a rented brick row house at 17 Centre Avenue, and later acquired the house at 31 Centre, a few doors north, in 1876. A highly respected fixture of the community and the city, Simpson could have seen the rear of the BME from his backyard. He lived there until the late 1890s, when he moved with his son Frank and his family to a home on Richmond Street. Simpson died on March 19, 1900, after a brief illness.
Simpson’s latter years, interestingly, overlap slightly with the beginning of another landmark career. George Brown, according to some accounts33, was traveling by cab when it nearly tipped into the Don River. A baker-turned-cabbie named William Peyton Hubbard, the Toronto-born son of Virginia slaves, somehow saved Brown before he took the plunge. The two struck up a friendship and Brown, late in his life, encouraged Hubbard to enter politics. Half a century after Black refugees began to carve out new lives on the streets of St. John’s Ward, Hubbard was elected to Toronto council in 1894 to represent a ward that ran between University and Bathurst between Lake Ontario and St. Clair.
He would be Toronto’s first Black elected official.34
1 This essay provides one historical interpretation of The Ward and is not written on behalf of the City of Toronto.
2 The Census of Toronto: The Globe, October 10, 1856.
3 For 1861 census figures, see https://www.scribd.com/document/340098601/Howe-Interview-Microfilms-Canada-West, pg. 16. Also, Furrow, “Samuel Gridley Howe, the Black Population of Canada West, and the Racial Ideology of the ‘Blueprint for Radical Reconstruction.'” The Journal of American History, September, 2010. Pg 344.
4 Ibid 1.
5 Some affluent Black residents, like Wilson Abbott, a wealthy land-owner and tobacconist who’d originally come from Mobile, Alabama, “detested George Brown as a hypocrite. He had refused to employ a black printer, they said, and curried favour with explicitly racist parliamentarians. From Barrie Dyster, “Captain Bob and the Noble Ward.” In, Forging a Consensus: Historical Essays on Toronto, ed. Victor L. Russell. (Toronto, 1984)
6 Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Book Society of Canada. Toronto: 1981. Pg. 109.
7 Simpson’s address is confirmed in city directories from that period. Today, the location would be a few metres south of the new Nathan Phillips Square stage.
8 “LD John M Tinsley Dead: The Patriarch of Toronto Quietly Passes Away.” The Globe, October 6, 1892.
9 Moodie’s Tavern was located at 14 Terauley (later Bay Street). The tavern’s location, on the east edge of Nathan Phillips Square, would be just south of the traffic light across Bay at Albert.
10 Ibid Dyster. pp. 87-115.
11 “Meeting of Coloured Electors St John’s Ward.” The Globe, August 9, 1858.
12 “Meeting of Coloured Electors Unanimity for Mr. Brown.” The Globe, August 24, 1858.
13 “Meeting of Coloured Electors: Large Majority for Mr. Romain.” The Globe, Sept. 15, 1858.
14 Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History. (Montreal: 1972). Pp. 110-111
15 Karolyn Smardz Frost, “A Fresh Start: Black Toronto in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood. Ed. John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg and Tatum Taylor (Toronto, 2015). Pp 66-70.
16 The African Methodist on the north side of Richmond, just east of York was located at what is now the south driveway entrance of the Sheraton Hotel.
17 Julia Roberts, In Mixed Company: Taverns and Public Life in Upper Canada. (Vancouver, 2009).
18 Kristin McLaren, “‘We had no desire to be set apart.’ Forced Segregation of Black Students in Canada West Public Schools and Myths of British Egalitarianism.” In Social History, Vol 37, No 73 (2004), pg 28.
19 William J. Smyth, Toronto, The Belfast of Canada: The Orange Order and the Shaping of Municipal Culture. (Toronto: 2015), pg 45.
20 Toronto Public Library “Freedom City” Exhibit. Available here: http://omeka.tplcs.ca/virtual-exhibits/exhibits/show/freedom-city/stories-of-freedom
21 “The Census of Toronto,” The Globe, October 15, 1856.
22 On July 3, 1840, the Toronto Patriot reported, “Two persons, Irishmen we believe by birth, but Yankeefied by habit, were charged on Thursday last, before Alderman 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.” Cited in Daniel Hill, The Freedom Seekers. Pg. 42.
23 According to Winks, Uncle Tom’s Cabin remained the mostly widely read American novel among Canadian school children until the 1930s, over 80 years after it was first published. He and others attribute the mythology around the Underground Railroad to the book’s staggering popularity.
24 “School Meeting,” The Globe, June 25, 1850.
25 Situated on the north-east corner of Bay and Dundas, the Agnes Street Baptist church operated for decades until, in 1909, the building was deconsecrated and acquired by a Yiddish lyric theatre company. The site was redeveloped in the late 1920s to make way for the Ford Hotel, which became notoriously seedy and was demolished in 1973. The Atrium on Bay now occupies that corner. See also: http://www.blogto.com/city/2012/11/a_brief_history_of_the_ford_hotels_fall_from_grace/
26 John Lorinc, “Toronto’s black history unearthed in excavation of landmark church.” Toronto Star, February 16, 2016. https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2016/02/15/torontos-black-history-unearthed-in-excavation-of-landmark-church.html.
27 Drew’s entire manuscript can be found online at: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/drew/drew.html.
28 Ibid 26. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/drew/drew.html#p94
29 Ibid 27.
30 Butler’s own testimony claims 1855 as his date of arrival (see page 309).
31 Ibid Winks. Pg 233
32 “Methodist Episcopal Church,” The Globe, April 20, 1895.
33 Kevin Plummer, “Public History and William Peyton Hubbard.” http://torontoist.com/2009/02/historicist_public_history_and_william_peyton_hubbard/
34 Mark Maloney, “Son of Slaves changed the face of Toronto as first black councilor.” Toronto Star, February 11, 2011. https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2011/02/11/son_of_slaves_changed_the_face_of_toronto_as_first_black_councillor.html