Putting Race in the Picture at Casa Loma

“Can my mom take a picture with your group?” said the woman as she smiled at me.

“No. We are not props,” I said.

I turned my back to her. Irritation rumbled in my belly. I took yet another photograph of our group posing in front of the Casa Loma museum. The place was filled with people visiting Toronto’s historic castle on a summer afternoon. They posed beside the fountain, the lush gardens and the tower of the castle.

Our group stood out from the crowds for one reason – we were Black.

Multiple languages and accents drifted in the air as people modelled for photographs. A young Chinese couple snapped selfies with their arms wrapped around each other. A Spanish-speaking dad hoisted his son on his shoulders as the rest of the family gathered around to pose in front of the roses. A French-speaking man asked me to take a photo of him and his family. I took three with his iPad, he was pleased with them.

Casa Loma was the terminus of our two-hour urban walk, along the parks and leafy neighbourhoods of mid-town Toronto. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, the castle has 98 rooms and was once the largest private house in Canada and the USA. It was built by one of the richest men in Canada in 1911. The castle was a list of firsts – it had home electricity, telephones and central vacuum. Today the castle is a museum, wedding venue and is used as a back-drop in many films and television shows.

Our walking group meets a once a month, on a Saturday afternoon, to talk, walk and explore the Black history of the city.  On this stroll we had meandered along on St. Clair Avenue, a street named after the hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

We did not know the white woman who wanted to pose with us. Her request made no sense – not in Toronto, not in 2017. We live in a city where people of colour are half of the population.

Her request got me thinking about race, art and the politics of images. There is a long tradition in American and European visual art of showing Black people as the ‘other.’ Curiosities. Exotics. Nameless. The white people are the focus of the picture, while the Black people are the small figures, in the margins. They are used to highlight the difference between the races and the implied superiority of one over the other.

The white woman’s request was a continuation of the tradition of portraying Blacks as curiosities.

Black History Walks Toronto

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Murder at the Wedding

Their heavy breathing had stopped. Tom Smith reached over and kissed his wife’s eyes. She pulled him closer, her hands rubbing his nipple, his belly, reaching down… the log cabin door flew open.

Winter’s air sliced the room. Men’s voices screeched at Tom, rough hands yanked his shoulders. Tom fought as fists and boots and clubs smacked his body.

I am sure that this was not how Tom Smith wanted to spend his wedding night. He is just one of the many characters in Susanna Moodie’s classic memoir of pioneer life in Canada. Roughing it in the Bush, Or Life in Canada was published in 1852. Tom was Black. His wife was not.

Tom Smith appears half way through the book. The runaway slave from the USA had settled in the small Ontario town, setting himself up as a barber and laundry specialist. He was quiet, good-natured and successful. Tom was well liked, until the day he wed.

Marriage is a sacred act between two people who are free to choose each other. Or, so we like to believe in Canada. Here, love might be blind, but it is never colour blind. Mix-race marriages, then and still now, has a way of exposing the fault line of race in a society. Especially, marriage between a Black man and a white woman. This tends to wake up the sleeping dogs of race, sending them snarling, snapping or biting.

Moodie wrote that the small Ontario town had a quaint custom called charivari, a leftover from the days when French was the dominant European culture of Canada. Young men of the town held a charivari on some wedding nights. It was a chance to poke fun at the bride and groom with chants, bottles of wine, and an impromptu orchestra of banging pots and clashing sticks.

The charivari rabble disguised themselves with masks and hats, and blacked-up their faces. They turned up, uninvited, late at night at the newly-wed homes. On a deeper level the charming custom reinforced the norms and values of the small town. Couples who deviated from the norm were tried and judged by the charivari.

In one example the town did not approve of the May-October romance between a young bride and a middle-age groom. At the end of the charivari the groom was as stiff as a box. Another spring-autumn pairing had a different outcome. After a week of nightly charivari taunts, the autumnal bride outwitted the rabble. She found out the identity of the ringleader, a young lawyer, and invited him in for a handsome afternoon tea.

The wilderness was a wild and fearful place for Susanna Moodie. The menacing presence had to be conquered, cleared and farmed before English civilization could flourish in the backwoods colony. Moodie wrote Roughing it in the Bush specifically to encourage English immigration to Canada.

I don’t think Tom Smith shared Moodie’s pessimistic take on the Canadian wilderness. After all he had left the shackles and the whipping behind once he reached Canada’s shores. What he could not leave behind was his skin colour. And the perception of his blackness in the white imagination.

Tom Smith believed that his hard work was enough to grant him full citizenship in the pioneer town. Perhaps he felt that the right of citizenship included the right to marry the one you loved.

Moodie wrote that the town was sorry for what happened. The ringleaders of Tom Smith’s charivari fled the town to avoid jail. It did not matter to Tom Smith.

He was married and murdered on the same day.

Photo: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Jessie Walmisley and their children, married in 1899.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Niagara-on-the-Lake: Wine, Women and Slaves

When people think of Niagara-on-the-Lake, they imagine wine tours, tastings and vineyards. Maybe strolling along the Victorian heritage district, overflowing with rustic charm from its gingerbread trimmed houses.

Black History rarely pops into the mind. Yet, a century ago Niagara-on-the-Lake had a substantial Black population. On our day trip from Toronto, we combined the best of a wine, food and Black History tour in the quaint town.

Our first stop was the Brock Monument at Queenston Heights park. We were not there to see the general poised high upon a column looking down on to the Niagara River. We were there to see the history plaque dedicated to the Coloured Corps.

Black Canadians fought in the War of 1812, helping to defeat the USA invasion. Their patriotism was based on fear. If the USA won, there was a possibility they would reintroduce slavery into Canada.

We hopped back into the minivan and drove slowly along the Niagara Parkway. The scenic road ran along the lip of a cliff. Way down below, the blue river was wide and deep, and a natural border between the two countries.

This Black Woman Made a Difference

Chole Cooley crossed that river once and was anxious not to do so again. She screamed. She fought back. She refused to be dragged down into the belly of a slave ship. A Black Canadian soldier heard her cries.

Slavery was abolished in Canada in 1793 because of Chole Cooley’s screams. The Canadian government blamed the ‘peculiar institution’ for causing the American Revolution. No slavery in Canada meant the colony was less likely to revolt, and more likely to remain loyal to Britain. One Black woman made a difference to the history of the country.

Next, we drove through the heart of the heritage district, looking for the plaque to the Negro Burial Ground. In the 1800s the Black community in Niagara-in-the-Lake was big enough to have its own church.

The burial ground was an open plot of land, with clipped grass and trees swaying in the breeze. Two gravestones stood next to the plaque. Underground, lies the bones of a few hundred Black residents.

Niagara-on-the-Lake was just one of the many Canadian termini of the Underground Railroad. Yet, the Black population of the city declined after the American Civil War. People returned to reunite their families, and to greet a new day as free men and women.

Tasting Wines

It’s never good to drink on an empty stomach. So we had lunch in a pretty restaurant in the centre of the town. We picked it based on its lively patio, filled with sun, chatter and gorgeous flower baskets. It was a good choice.

Then it was the wine tour. We meandered from the vineyard, to the underground storage vault and back to the patio for wine tasting. Tutankhamun liked wine. So did Hatshepsut, the lone female pharaoh. Both were buried with flasks of wine to ease their journey into the afterlife.

As the designated driver, I had to settle for the grape juice. In the wine store I bought my booze in the form of merlot habanero jam and pear ginger amaretto jelly.

Our final stop was the lavender farm and apothecary. It had everything lavender from oils, soaps to photographs.

The group was happy on the hour-and-a-half drive back to Toronto. The wine and lavender tours were great. But they chatted most about the Black History. They were astonished that Niagara-on-the-Lake was filled with our history.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Cherry Blossoms in High Park

The cherry blossoms danced in High Park. The clusters of small flowers, white on the outside and pink at the core, did the samba in the spring sunshine. A swathe of cherry trees lined the bank of the stream. I have ran, cycled and skied near them for more than two decades. Most of those times a minority of Black and other people of colour were in the park.

It is different at cherry blossom time. High Park bloomed with East Asians. It was a warm spring day and so families picnicked under the trees. Other people snapped thousands of photographs against the backdrop of the blooming trees. Young couples celebrated their love, or at least the daydream of perfect love, under the lucky buds. Happiness is fleeting like the flowers. One must cherish it, before it too fades.

The Sakura cherry trees were a gift from the people of Tokyo. It was a thank you note to Toronto, for accepting the Japanese-Canadian who were relocated to the city during and after World War II. Relocation. Such a nice, neutral word to cover up surviving the internment camps.

Japanese-Canadians were not Canadian enough during the war. Declared enemies of the state, they were stripped of their assets – homes, shops, fishing boats – and banished to the interior of the country. Far away from their lives on the west coast.

They were branded as the ‘yellow peril.’ It was an old label hurled at Japanese-Canadians since they first arrived in the country as miners in the 1870s, chasing the dream of digging up a fortune in the Gold Rush. On the west coast anti-Japanese protests and sentiments were as common as the maple leaf. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, merely ignited a long smouldering fire.

We climbed up the hillock and looked down into the valley. The crowd was the indifferent to our group of six Black people savouring the delight of the cherry trees. The sun reflected off the forest of apartments in the distance. My eyes drifted to the pond, to the budding maple and oak trees. They once again settled on the cherry trees.

During the war Japanese-Canadian families were split up and sent to different camps. Ghost towns in the interior were resurrected: they had no schools, electricity or running water. Isolated in these towns, Japanese-Canadians grew thin on a diet of racism, dislocation and dispossession.

The men were forced to work as lumberjacks, road crews or on sugar-beet farms. They did hard labour for a dreg of wages. The internment camps were designed to be self-sufficient. Meaning that the government forced the Japanese-Canadians to pay for their own imprisonment.

German and Italian Canadians were not locked up in internment or prisoner-of-war camps. Their white skins was sufficient proof of their loyalty. After the war, thousands of Japanese-Canadians were stripped of their birthright as citizens. They were forcibly deported to a country they never knew. No Germans nor Italians were deported. Their white skins was sufficient proof of citizenship.

The redress came 50 years later. In 1988 the Canadian government apologised for its harsh treatment of its own citizens. It said that racial profiling was a mistake of the past. The Black community does not agree with that statement.

We strolled down the hillock and arrived at Grenadier Pond. Children scampered near the bank feeding the mallards, geese and swans. The grove of cherry blossoms made me smile. Spring is here they jived in the breeze. Some people go to a temple, church or synagogue to celebrate the rebirth of life. My sacred place is outdoors. Among the lilies of the field and the cherry trees, I find my joy.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Stories Along the Humber River Valley

The sunshine was as warm as our chatter as we meandered along the road. Buds on trees and shrubs peaked out, whispering that spring was here. A party of crocus flaunted their new purple and yellow dresses on the sunny side of the road.

I tried to read the geography of the land on our urban hike along the Humber River valley. Leaving Jane subway station, we strolled along Riverview Gardens. The gentle downhill slope of the street indicated a path towards a ravine.

Drains filled the street. We stopped and listen to the water roaring beneath. The sewer pipes were engorged with spring melt water. Or it could have been a buried stream. As Toronto swelled in the past century, it was common practise to inter streams and brooks that were in the way of humans. The sound was a ghostly reminder that thou unseen the water refused to be forgotten. In a severe spring storm the buried brook could smash its concrete tomb. A resurrection of a sort perhaps.

A nature trail snaked along the bottom of the river valley. The river itself refused to flow in the middle and instead hugged the left bank. The waterway was alive and feasting on the base of the port-side bluffs. In time it would swallow the houses perched on the cliff’s lips. The soil was loose till. The water-drenched land had already slipped in places leaving bald patches of bare earth behind.

Two men fly-fished in the still cool river. How did ‘Daddy’ John Hall catch his salmon in the 1840s? This Black Canadian man was born in Amherstburg in 1783 to a Black mother and an Indigenous father. He fought for Canada in the War of 1812. Wounded, he was captured by the Americans. At the end of the fight Hall expected to be swapped along with the other prisoners of war. He was not. Instead he was sold into slavery and spent a decade picking scars and cotton. Hall escaped back to Canada, moved to Toronto and lived in the Humber valley for a few years. There he farmed, fished and made birch bark canoes.

The vale was long and broad-hipped. After 10,000 years in the deep freeze, this part of the world warmed up some 4,000 years ago. As the glaciers melted, the water tumbled to the sea carving out the Humber River and the Great Lakes. The river that we see today is a mere trickle compared to its ice age self.

On the stretch of the river, from Etienne Brule Park to James Garden, there were five weirs, if my memory is accurate. The weirs help to control potential floods. They are a good indicator of the power of the river when left to its own natural ways.

Mallards drifted in the eddies. Their orange feet paddled this way and then that. My eyes flitted over to a Black man running up the hill on the right. He made it look like a casual stroll. Tall and lean, he had the relaxed gait of a marathon runner. His skin was coloured like a cinnamon bun. Perhaps it tasted just as sweet. We were the only two Black people in the park on that Sunday afternoon.

Two boys played in the branches of a small tree overhanging the swirling river. I remembered to say nothing, their parents were nearby. We stopped further along, near a meander loop. As a hike leader I had to focus on the whole group and not just the people near me. I waited for the stragglers to bunch up with the rest of us.

There were no homes backing onto this stretch of the river. We have Hurricane Hazel to thank, if that is the right word, for that. She put paid to the idea of fishing for your supper from the porch. Some 81 people died and 500 homes were destroyed as the Humber River flexed its raw power in 1954. In the aftermath, the river valley was turned into a park to ensure that the land would act like a natural floodplain, as Mother Nature intended, absorbing and slowing excess water before it could wreak havoc.

Leaving the valley we climbed up Humbercrest Boulevard. We stopped a few times to admire the view, or listen to the ghostly buried streams. All were excuses to catch our breath. Soon the land leveled out at Baby Point. Daddy John Hall probably climbed up the headland many times himself, to chat with the Mississauga First Nations or the soldiers at the French fort in the area. From the top of the hill one has a clear view of the river, and who was coming up or going down it.

Today Baby Point is an exclusive neighbourhood, filled with multi-million dollar homes overlooking the river or backing on to the ravine. Some of these homes sit on the site of the 1600s Seneca village of Teiaiagon. During a home renovation an ivory comb, carved from moose antler, was discovered in the grave of a Seneca woman from 1660s. Teiaiagon was huge with 50 longhouses and about 5,000 people.

The Humber River was a natural transport corridor linking the Great Lakes to the Georgian Bay in the north. For thousands of years Indigenous people farmed, traded and hunted along the river. They also warred. The river was a natural border between the different First Nations. The river remained a key transport route until cars and trains replaced canoes.

Daddy John Hall left Toronto, and spent many decades canoeing and farming in Owen Sound. He was also famous as the town crier. His obituary appeared in the newspaper. He was about 117 years old when he was called home in 1900. In a century of life, Hall experience all the vagaries of slavery. His mother was a runaway slave. He fought to keep out re-enslavement in Canada. Captured in the war he was sold into American slavery. Hall escaped and lived to see the end of slavery in the British Empire and the Civil War that ended the institution in the USA.

The village green was soggy in Baby Point. Today’s sun need more time to dry up yesterday’s rain. Robins chirped and hopped about, feasting on lazy afternoon worms.

The hike was almost over. We ended it at a café filled with cozy chairs, dark wood floors and big windows. The place was suddenly packed with the nine of us. Tea and cake, laughter and chatter. It was a lovely way to end a Sunday afternoon hike.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

Race in the Graveyard

Neither the dead nor the living paid much attention to me as I wandered around the cemetery. It would have been hard for the corpses to do as they were, well, dead. I strolled along the meandering paths looking for the graves of the famous Black residents.

The spring sunshine warmed my face, even as the air tried to freeze it. Like a clueless dinner guest, winter was determined to hang on until the very end. I wrapped the scarf more snugly around my neck and donned my hood. I had to find the graves.

Homes for the dead are unique outdoors spaces that reflect the basic values and beliefs of a society.  In multi-racial countries the fault lines of race tend to follow the dead to the grave. Sometimes it is shrouded in religious garments such as Jews only in Jewish cemeteries, Catholics in Catholics boneyards and so on. Yet, lift the denominational death mask and race stares back, cold, unblinking, and as enduring as the bones.

The Toronto Necropolis cemetery is a brisk fifteen minute walk from my downtown apartment. When it opened in 1850, it was on the outskirts of the city. The cemetery lies on a high ridge overlooking a steep valley. A century ago the Don River gurgled in the wide crevice on its way to Lake Ontario. Today the acoustics is provided by cars, buzzing like angry wasps, as they race along the highway. The poor river is entombed in a concrete straightjacket as its drips down to the lake.

The Necropolis was a non-denominational burial ground, meaning that anyone could sleep in peace there. Make that anyone who was rich. Race and religion was not an issue, but money was, and still is, essential to be allowed to rot in the hallowed grounds. The gravestones are a who-was-who of life in Toronto. Mayors, doctors, politicians and journalists who argued among themselves in life are now quiet together in death.

The cemetery was designed as a pastoral park, filled with winding paths and elegant trees. The graves are loosely arranged. Like flowers in an English garden, there is order but not rigidity. I found the first grave on my second loop through the park. It was a red granite obelisk pointing to the sky. The Egyptian symbol of the sun’s rays, hence of life, was a fitting tribute for Thornton and Lucie Blackburn.

Both were escaped slaves. Their flight to Canada in 1833, caused the first race riot in Detroit and a legal ruckus between Canada and the USA. Canada ruled that slaves could not be returned to their former owners, thus the country became the terminus for the Underground Railroad. The Blackburns thrived in Toronto, starting the first taxi company in the city. Thornton risked everything to go back to the USA to rescue his mother and brother from slavery. The size of the obelisk, some six feet tall, is a good indicator of the Blackburns wealth and status in the city.

Boneyards are outdoor places of culture, history and memory. In life, it is essential that we are individuals, first to ourselves and then to the rest of the world. It is no different in death. Gravestones are etched with a name, birthday and death-day. Some point to the place of the dead in the family. They were once mother, husband, beloved child.

The fresh graves had heaped soil spilling from the plot. Without a marker the unnamed corpse was anonymous. Such was the fate of most enslaved people. In life, they were recorded in the plantation ledger, as a sexed and aged property among the other assets like the cows and the pigs. In death they were interred in unmarked graves at the bitter edges of the cotton, sugar or rice plantations.  Most of these slave graveyards are now lost, reclaimed by overgrown vegetation or concrete parking lots. They are buried by a present determined to forget that it forged the shackles and cracked the whips.

The gravestone was simple for William Peyton Hubbard. He was the first Black politician elected in Canada. In a twenty-year career he served as the acting mayor of Toronto. This is remarkable as in those long ago days, politicians were elected annually. Every year he had to campaign to earn his votes! Hubbard was born in Toronto in 1840; his parents were fugitive slaves from the USA.

Anderson Ruffian Abbot was the first Black Canadian to become a doctor. He came from a wealthy family which owned about 50 houses in Toronto in the 1870s. Anderson imperiled his life by joining the union army in the USA Civil War. He was one of the doctors who tried to save President Lincoln after the assassin’s bullet munched his flesh.

Abbot, the Blackburns and the Hubbards disrupt the expected story of Black life in Toronto. They showed what was possible when free. They were among the wealthy elite in Toronto. And they never forgot were the came from. Passionate activists in the abolition movement, they endangered their comfortable lives by returning to the USA to rescue other family members from the whip.

Departing the lifeless, I headed back to the entrance of the cemetery. The elaborate gates – huge, arched and covered with gingerbread trim – were impressive. They were a not so subtle indicator that in entering the gates, we were leaving one world behind and entering another.

Black History Walks in Toronto

Black History Walks in Toronto

The next time you are in Toronto, give me a call. We can spend an afternoon chatting and walking as we explore the Black history of the city.

Together we will trace the Toronto footsteps of abolitionists Harriet Tubman, Josiah Henson, and others. As we explore homes, churches, and cemeteries that played key roles in the Underground Railroad, we’ll discuss why and how many Black leaders—including former slaves—migrated to Toronto and built the foundations of a strong Black community.

On the walk, there will be stops for drinks and we will end it with a tasty snack at a Caribbean café.

I already lead walks for two outdoor clubs and a Meet Up group. This walk is done through Airbnb. It is part of their new programme called Airbnb Experience. The idea behind it to get an insider’s view of the city and to share in the activities that make city life so vibrant. As being outside and Black history are my passions, it made sense to combine both.

All prospective Experience hosts are screened and trained by Airbnb. I am in the first group of those launching the initiative in Toronto. Others are offering food and wine tours, mural painting, silk screening and a jazz safari.

The Experience is a chance for me to earn some extra cash. Studying for a PhD, even on a full scholarship, is expensive. Many PhD students graduate with their head stuffed with knowledge and their bank accounts stuffed with debts. I don’t want to be one of those.

So the next time you are in Toronto, check out my Black History walking tour.

Black History Walks in Toronto