Using the Archives

Black history in Toronto

Toronto has had a Black population from its earliest days as a settlement. United Empire Loyalists, Americans escaping enslavement, rural Canadians moving from Nova Scotia or southwestern Ontario, Jamaicans following economic opportunities, 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.

 

Handwritten petition to Mayor, page 1 Handwritten petition to Mayor, page 2

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, File 57

Read a transcription of this letter

 

This is one of several such petitions presented to City Council in the 1840s. Council enacted a by-law in 1840 enabling it to license travelling theatrical groups and circuses. On at least one occasion, in July 1843, Council refused to let a circus perform without assurances that it would not "sing songs or perform acts that would be insulting to 'the gentlemen of colour' of the city."

 

A page from the Toronto city directory of 1846-7 shows four men identified as "coloured"; their professions are labourer, barber, storekeeper, and cook
Brown’s Toronto City and Home District Directory 1846-7, page 42
1846-7
City of Toronto Archives

 

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.

Papers of William Peyton Hubbard, Fonds 1328

Hubbard was a successful entrepreneur--a baker by trade, and owner of a company that sold ovens of his own design--when he was elected alderman of Ward 4 (now approximately Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, between University Avenue and Bathurst Street) in 1893.

The city's first Black politician, he served for 14 years, and 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, including letters to him and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about him, that illuminate both the ceremonial and the everyday duties of a respected municipal politician of his day.

 

Black men and others use rakes and machinery to pave a road with asphalt
Workers on Jarvis Street
Photographer: F.W. Micklethwaite
City of Toronto Archives
Series 376, File 1, Item 23

 

 group of Black women in long coats and broad hats stand in front of Ontario House
Women in front of YWCA’s Ontario House, 698 Ontario Street
ca. 1912
Photographer: William James
City of Toronto Archives
Fonds 1244, Item 71.22

 

In the early 20th century, as single women, most of them young, 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, and, like other YWCA buildings, probably provided both dormitory-style and private rooms, and sitting rooms for daytime occupations.

 

A choir of eight Black men and women in dark robes stands in the chancel of a small church
Church choir
1907
Photographer: William James
City of Toronto Archives
Fonds 1244, Item 2373

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.

 

Four Black men, three wearing Canadian Armed Forces uniforms, greet one another
World War II veterans
May 31, 1946
Photographer: John Boyd
City of Toronto Archives
Fonds 1266, Item 104988

 

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.”

The Black Battalion

Large group of Black people, including clergy, soldiers, women, and children

Members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion
July 5, 1920
City of Toronto Archives
Series 411, Item 86

 

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 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.

If you are able to identify anyone, or provide any other information about this photograph, we would like to hear from you.

Donald Willard Moore

Donald Willard Moore (1891-1994), 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," was a community leader and civil rights activist who fought to change Canada's exclusionary immigration laws.

Older Black man in suit and hat
Donald Moore
Photographer: Andrew Stawicki/GetStock.com
1992
City of Toronto Archives
Fonds 431, Item 4
Reproduced with permission of the Toronto Star

 

Moore was the recipient of a number of awards for his significant contributions to the West Indian community and to Canadian society, including the City of Toronto Award of Merit (1982), the Ontario Bicentennial Medal (1984), the Harry Jerome Award of Merit (1984), the Barbados Service Medal (1986), the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship award (1987), the Order of Ontario (1988), and the Order of Canada (1990).

The Archives has put together a web exhibit on this extraordinary individual.

At the Archives we work to preserve the history of all Torontonians. If you have documents—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.

Please contact the Archives by email or at 416-397-0778 for more information.