10 Things Tourists Notice About Toronto

When I started the Black History Walks in Toronto, I assumed that my clients would be older, come dressed in linen and sun hats, and of course, wear sensible walking shoes. And most would be white.

My theory was based on the people that I see on heritage walks in the city. I stand out in these crowds of history buffs as I am younger and Black.

Well, my assumptions were plain wrong. I have had every ethnic group on the Black History Walks. There were Black people and white people. And Latinos, Arabs and Asians. To my surprise about a third of the people on the walks are Canadians, some coming from the suburbs of Toronto.

The one thing my clients have in common is a curiosity about Black history in Toronto. Most thought there was little. In the walk, we talk about an African Canadian history that goes back to 1600s, and specifically in Toronto, to 1796 when the modern city was founded on Indigenous land.

As part of the walk, I ask people what are the things that they notice about Toronto. Some of their answers were unexpected. Here are ten of the memorable ones.

1. Few Police Cars. An African American student was surprised that there were so few police cars on Toronto’s streets. In his home in Erie, Pennsylvania, police cars are on every intersection. But only in the Black areas of the city. He feels like he lives in a garrison. He was amazed that stores in Toronto accepted his credit card, without asking for other identification like his driver’s license and phone number.

2. Colonial Legacy. A woman from South Korea found it easy to move around city. The pattern of street names – King, Queen, Adelaide and so on – were the same in her travels in Australia and New Zeeland. The British colonial legacy was alive in the former colonies.

3. Green City. A white woman from suburban Oakville was astonished that the city centre was so green. She had never noticed the trees in all her years of driving through Toronto. The walk goes by a ravine and several large parks.

4. Diverse City Centre. A French woman was astonished that the city centre was so multicultural. In Paris, Black people and immigrants live in the suburbs, cut off from the opportunities and vibrancy of city life. The woman now lived in a small city in Ireland. She had left France as was tired of being passed over for promotion. Her education was fine. Her performance was fine. Her skin was not.

5. Pawn Shops. The Latino couple from New York noticed the lack of pawn shop, beer stores and cheque cashing shops as we passed a sketchy area of the walk. These businesses line the streets in poor areas of their city.

6. Fearless after the Terror. A Black French woman jaywalked across the streets. She ignored my caution to wait with the rest of the group for the cross walk signal. She was dining with friends when the terrorist attacked the restaurant in Paris. She spent six hours locked inside and hiding under the tables, unsure if she would live or die. Nothing scared her after that night.

7. Blacks in the City. A student from Vancouver was astonished that so many Black people live in Toronto. Her home city is racially segregated into Chinese, South Asian and White areas. And the groups rarely mix. She felt invisible as a South Asian walking around Toronto. She liked that feeling.

8. Grave Matters. The African American friends were amazed that the graves were in the ground. In New Orleans tombs are above ground, so that they don’t float to the surface in the frequent rains and floods. Or wash up on the streets, half-rotting, like they did in Hurricane Katrina.

9. Rude Canadians. A British woman had just finished her master’s degree in Toronto. She was fed up with people asking her where she was really from. Canadians could not seem to get their heads around that Black people lived in England too.

10. Less is Better. “I feel less Black in Toronto. Nobody is looking at me and expecting trouble.” This was from an African American man, on a long weekend break from Los Angeles.

The Black History Walks are more popular than I expected. They won’t make me rich, but they supplement my tiny PhD scholarship. The walks are a good indicator of the thirst for a more inclusive history of Toronto. Black people have lived in the city from its very birth.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London

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

Hiking in the Hills of Jamaica

“I want to go hiking up in the hills,” I said.

“Oh my. What do you want to do that for?” said my cousin.

“Because it’s there. Because I like hills. Because the Maroons used the trails to escape slavery.”

“That’s work my girl. You’re on vacation. Why not just relax yourself by the beach? Watch the waves. Swim a little. Relax.”

“I am relax, but the hills are calling me.”

“So you want to walk in the hot, hot sun, just to get to the top of the hill? And then you walk back down again? My girl I won’t be doing that with you. No mam, I walk enough already. I’m not going to hot up myself and sweat up myself. That’s not fun.”

“It is for me. Who can come with me?”

“You best book a tourist trip. I’ll ask Mr. Thomas to check out the details.”

“I don’t want to do it that way. When I go hiking in Canada I am the only Black person in the group. I’m in Jamaica, I want to hike with a Jamaican group.”

“The only one I can think of is those English people them. After forty years in England they come back to Jamaica a bit different. Some say mad. They are the ones you see walking up and down in the hot sun for exercise. You know what they say about mad dogs and English men. Add the women too in Jamaica.”

“Come with me just for a bit. We won’t go far.”

“I’ll come only if we take a taxi drive. You can feast your eyes and your clothes won’t get sweaty. Better yet, let’s just go to the beach. That’s how we Jamaicans relax.”

Sailing on a Half Moon

Walking the American Border

I am thinking of taking up a new hobby. It’s called wall-walking. I want to hike along the main walls in the world, built to separate communities. Imagine being outdoors, face warmed by the sun, dreadlocks quivering in the breeze. Open skies. The wall pointing the way ahead. One could not possibly get lost, as the wall is always there.

I have hiked along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Built by the Romans some 2,000 years ago, to the north were the barbarians and to the south was civilization. The wall snaked over the tree-less, scrub-covered moors. Up close it was solid, massive stone blocks cemented into place. From a distance it was a mere ribbon of beige, fighting not to disappear into the earth.

Hadrian’s Wall worked for a while. Until the barbarians breached it. Freedom fighters will fight. No wall is high enough to contain their hunger to be rid of conquerors. Even the ones offering improvements such as wine, roads and hot baths.

My next wall-walking stop would be the Great Wall of China. The mother of all walls, meanders some 21,000 kilometres over the land. This wall failed too. The Mongols jumped over it with their horses. Genghis Khan built an empire, stretching from Asia to Europe, beyond the length of the wall. The wall became the trade route for ideas, news, silk and spices.

I can still see the Berlin Wall falling, in my mind’s eye. Bats and hammers smashing the symbol of a divided country. I can hear the cheers as Germans waltzed in the streets. The wall had failed. I want to see the remnants of it, kept as a souvenir.

Who builds the walls has the most to fear. The enclosures may have started as a symbol of their power, but ended as a relic of their impotence.

Closer to home, I will have to trek along the newest wall in the world. Trump’s Wall. It will be built along the USA-Mexican border. It will slither over some 3,000 kilometres of desserts, mountains and rivers. The wall is ‘to make America great again,’ by keeping the Mexicans out. Some 150 years ago, the border was further north. The USA states of Texas, Arizona and California were all part of Mexico.

All the long walls failed in history. Why should Trump’s Wall be any different?

Sailing on a Half Moon

Washington: In the Footsteps of History

As the Obamas walked up the steps of the Capitol Building, I promised to do the same one day. To me, their inauguration was ‘the dream and the hope of the slave.’ In the last month, of their last year, as President and First Lady of the USA, I finally made it to Washington.

Stepping out of the train station, the white dome of the Capitol Building glittered in the weak winter sunshine. The beacon was our landmark. As long as we could find it, we would never get lost in the compact city.

We scampered up the steps of the Capitol, then along the surrounding wide avenues and parks. I was trying to find the spot of a shot from Twelve Years a Slave. The Capitol’s dome glittered there too, in the background, as the slaves were stripped, whipped and shackled in a slave pen.

A cool wind played with my dreadlocks as we ambled along the Potomac River. Ignoring the map, we figured it was more fun just to drift and see where the water took us. The river was wide, and too deep to swim across. As it was winter, no tour boats bobbed in the water.

Across the bank, we spotted the Jefferson Memorial. The Greek-style temple was serene, it’s dome round and perky like a full breast. The lone figure of the man peeked through the columns. Perhaps he was missing Sally Hemmings. Would she have wanted to join him, I wondered? He was her lover, her owner, and the father of their enslaved children.

Did Jefferson think of his children as he wrote the Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”? I think he did – but only of his White ones. His Black children were mere property, their names neatly recorded in his ledgers, along with his other 600 or so slaves, the cattle and the bushels of tobacco.

Groves of cherry trees lingered over the banks of the Potomac River. We strolled along, dodging a few runners and cyclists sharing the river-walk path. Pocahontas lived along this same shore. She sailed from here to visit the queen and king of England in 1615. Her gift of tobacco was sweet to them, and in the end, the herb was bitter for Native and African Americans.

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” This was carved into the Martin Luther King Memorial. We stumbled across it, on the right bank of the river. King stands tall, as he emerges from a mountain of solid rock. Arms folded, he gazes across the water. Perhaps he was having a long chat with Jefferson. Separated by two centuries of history, the two men were still talking about race.

President Obama came to the same spot on the river once – to pay his respects to King. People milled around the memorial, waiting for their turn, to stand at King’s feet and pose for the classic photograph. We did the same. At King’s feet was a single red rose.

The Potomac was the River Jordan for slaves. On its south side were the slave states. Cross the river, and you were almost free. Black fishermen and clam diggers worked the river, fishing for news and food. At night their catch included fleeing slaves, gently shown the way north, and another stop on the Underground Railroad.

Twilight was near as turned away from the river, and followed the signs to the Lincoln Memorial. The temple was magnificent. I looked about the vast hall, above and around the statue and these words caught my eye, carved into the wall. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Lincoln said this speech in 1865, at the end of the civil war.

We ambled down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, standing on the exact spot, where a century later Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. A quarter of a million people stood before the Civil Rights king, as he once again pleaded for justice.

In the distance, the Egyptian-inspired Washington Monument pricked the sky. Capitol Hill seemed to quiver in the fading light. The National Museum of African American History and Culture appeared like the upper decks of a ship, its sails aloft in a full breeze. We sauntered towards it, the image of a slave ship drifting in my head. The museum, Black Lives Matter, and the Obamas, are the after-life of slavery.

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