The passing of the Imperial Statute by the British government allowed United Empire Loyalists fleeing the aftermath of the American Revolution to bring their goods, livestock and slaves to Upper Canada.
Upper Canada's first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, was a military officer who had fought alongside black troops during the American Revolution. After the war he entered Parliament and supported William Wilberforce’s attempts to end Britain’s involvement in the African slave trade. When he arrived in Canada, Lieutantant Governor Simcoe wrote that: "The principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America or Europe." However, Simcoe soon found that several members of his new Executive Council were slaveholders.
March 21, 1793
Black Loyalist Peter Martin witnessed the struggles of Chloe Cooley, an enslaved woman from Queenston, who was dragged, bound and gagged, to a small boat by her owner Adam Vrooman. She was sold across the Niagara River into the United States. Martin reported Chloe Cooley's resistance to an outraged Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe. Simcoe ordered Attorney General John White to devise a means to end slavery in Upper Canada.
June 19, 1793
Attorney General John White presented a bill to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude. It passed in the second session of Upper Canada’s first Parliament, with "much opposition but little argument," according to White's diary. Henceforth, all slaves who enter the province would be legally free, slave children were to be freed at age 25, and their children at birth. Although slavery itself was not entirely abolished, Upper Canada became the first colony to limit slavery, forty years before the rest of the British Empire.
July 8, 1794
A request for land grants in a settlement set aside for black families so they could assist and support one another was read before the Legislative Council, but was ultimately not recommended. The petition included men from the Niagara region, including noted Black Loyalist Richard Pierpoint, as well as at least three from the Town of York, Robert Franklin, Black Loyalist Peter Long, and a man known only as Pompadour. Pompadour was a free man whose wife, Peggy, and three children were enslaved in the Town of York household of Peter Russell.
York Upper Canada Minutes of Town Meetings and Lists of Inhabitants, 1797-1823 shows fifteen African Canadians enumerated in the Town of York, as well as Black Loyalist Peter Long and ten family members, who established a farm east of the Don River, outside the town limits. The Long family sold produce to the markets in the town.
Jack Mosee and William Willis were the first businessmen of African descent in the Town of York. They were contractors who built a road from Yonge Street westward through the Pinery, near current day Davenport Road.
York Upper Canada Minutes of Town Meetings and Lists of Inhabitants, 1797-1823 records eighteen free black people living in York, including six children. There were also enslaved servants living in the Gray, Russell, Jarvis and Denison households.
March 25, 1807
The British Government passed the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. This ended Britain's role in the highly lucrative Atlantic slave trade and made it illegal to carry slaves in British ships. However, it was still legal to own a slave in the Town of York.
The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, giving rise to the War of 1812. Hundreds of African-Canadian volunteers, including several men from York, fought on the British side. Canada's black population feared that an American victory would mean a return to slavery, and thus rallied behind the British.
While many served in regularly constituted units across British North America, Black Loyalist Richard Pierpoint convinced the Government of Upper Canada to raise a company of black troops to help defend the Niagara frontier. Hence, the Colored Corps was created under the command of white officer Colonel Robert Runchey. Fourteen black members of the 3rd Regiment of York Militia voluntarily transferred to the unit, which defended Fort George, fought at Queenston Heights, Lundy's Lane and Stoney Creek, and participated in the Fort Mississauga.
During the War of 1812, slaves accompanying American officers in the invasion of the province witnessed free Blacks living in Upper Canada and fighting in the forces of the Crown. This gave birth to the dream of freedom in British North America.
Freedom-seekers began making their way to Canada. Most came without assistance, or with only the chance kindness of strangers. Over time, their courage inspired people of conscience and conviction to assist the refugees on their way. The Underground Railroad did not adopt its name and coded language until railroads began in the 1830s. Secret routes and safe houses enabled thousands of enslaved African Americans to escape to Upper Canada. Many conductors were free Blacks living in the Northern United States. Most freedom-seekers entered the province by way of the Detroit frontier, or crossed into the Niagara Peninsula. Others found sympathetic lake captains to carry them to ports such as Hamilton and Toronto.
Toronto's First Baptist church was established when a dozen fugitive slaves gathered in worship on the shores of Lake Ontario in 1826. As their numbers grew, Reverend Washington Christian, a Virginia born former slave, leased St. George's Masonic Lodge in 1827. White congregants formed their own church in 1829, although there were always a few attending Reverend Christian's services.
In 1841, a new African Baptist Church was built at the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets.
The First Baptist Church on D'Arcy Street continues this community of faith, an unbroken tradition to this day.
The second black church in Toronto the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was founded on Richmond Street east of York Street. This was a branch of the first African American denomination, which had been established in Philadelphia in 1816. Reverend Samuel H. Brown was the first minister.
Sir John Colborne, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada and his Executive Council ordered the release of fugitive slaves Thornton and Lucie Blackburn. They had been jailed in Sandwich, after escaping slave catchers in Detroit. The Governor of Michigan demanded their extradition. Attorney General Robert Simpson Jameson, after whom Toronto’s Jameson Avenue is named, established Canada’s first refugee reception policies to free the Blackburns.
These remain the basis of Canadian extradition law to this day. In 1834, the Blackburns moved to the newly-incorporated City of Toronto, where Thornton took a job as a waiter at Osgoode Hall.
August 28, 1833
The British Parliament passed an Imperial Act which abolished slavery throughout the British colonies. Sometimes referred to as The Emancipation Act, it came into effect on August 1, 1834. It is still commemorated as Emancipation Day, when the remaining enslaved men, women and children in British colonial Canada were finally freed.
March 6, 1834
The Town of York was officially incorporated as the City of Toronto.
August 1, 1835
To celebrate the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies under the British Imperial Act of 1834, a few black Torontonians proposed the creation of an African Corps, a militia unit composed entirely of African-Canadian men.
Thornton and Lucie Blackburn established the first cab business in Upper Canada. Known as The City, their horse-drawn taxi was painted red with yellow trim and collected passengers from the cabstand on Church Street just north of King.
At the start of the Upper Canadian Rebellion in 1837, almost one thousand black men volunteered for service. Toronto's Wilson Ruffin Abbott joined Captain Fuller's Company of Volunteers and marched up Yonge to roust out the rebels at Montgomery's Tavern.
A militia order authorized Captains Thomas Runchey and James Sears to raise a “corps of Negroes”. Almost immediately, fifty men enlisted. By the end of the Rebellion, five African Canadian military corps had been organized.
December 4, 1837
A group of Mackenzie’s rebels advancing on the city were blocked at the Don Bridge by a black man holding a musket, and were forced to turn back.
The lone man who stopped the advance was either Thornton or his brother Alfred Blackburn, who lived near the bridge.
The Colored Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded on Toronto's Richmond Street by Wilson Ruffin Abbott and five others.
One of the first Emancipation Day parades in Toronto was held in 1839. Reverend Jehu Jones, a former slave and one of the first black Lutheran ministers in the United States, was invited by the British-American Antislavery Society to participate in the celebrations. The most important social event of the year for Toronto’s black population, it included church services, picnics, speeches and a parade.
The Toronto Globe was launched. The newspaper's publisher, Scottish-born George Brown was an avid abolitionist as were his father, Peter, brother Gordon, sister Isabella and her husband, Thomas Henning. Brown used the paper to support the cause of the fugitive slave and advocate an end to slavery in the United States.
The American war and slavery; speech of the Hon. George Brown, at the anniversary meeting of the Anti-slavery society of Canada, held at Toronto, on Wednesday, February 3, 1863.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded on January 31, on Sayer (Chestnut) Street. In 1856, it became a British Methodist Episcopal Church, when the AME denomination divided. Separately administered from the American church, the BME was created partly because it was not safe for formerly enslaved African-Canadian ministers to attend church meetings in the United States.
While numbers were actually much higher, the 1846 Toronto Directory identified 93 Blacks in Toronto, 71 living west of Yonge Street and the remainder living east, clustered around the African Baptist Church. The largest numbers lived on York Street, where a number of Virginia-born free families had settled in the early 1830s in the wake of the Nat Turner Slave Rebellion, and also in the immigrant reception district of Macaulaytown, which by 1852 would be renamed St. John's Ward.
Businessmen, both black and white, from as far away as Montreal bought stock to establish a model fugitive slave settlement at Buxton, south of Chatham, in what is now southwestern Ontario. The Elgin Association's support enabled founder Reverend William King to acquire 9,000 acres of farmland. Farms were then sold on easy terms to fugitive slaves.
Buxton had Canada's first integrated grammar school, teaching Latin and Greek as well as higher mathematics and theology. Its graduates attended Toronto medical and divinity schools, as well as the university and teachers’ college. Buxton was home to more than 1,500 people by 1860. Subscribers to the Elgin Association fund were reimbursed by 1873.
This image (right) is the cover of the 4th annual report. You can read the 8th annual report of the Elgin Association online in the Toronto Public Library's Digital Archive.
The Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the United States, requiring constables and magistrates throughout the US to assist slaveholders in the arrest and rendition of refugees from bondage. This prompted thousands of enslaved and free African-Americans to flee northward. Toronto’s black population increased significantly in the last decade before the US Civil War. The newcomers engaged fully in the life of the community, founding self-help, debating and literary societies, and took part in abolitionist activities.
February 26, 1851
The Anti-Slavery Society of Canada was founded with support from George Brown, editor of The Globe. Reverend Michael Willis of Knox College was President. The integrated board of directors included formerly enslaved newspaper publisher Henry Bibb of Sandwich, and Wilson Ruffin Abbott of Toronto. Branches were formed across the province, and the "Moses of her People,” Harriet Tubman was on the board of the St. Catharines ASC.
The organization's initial purpose was to help in the immediate care of those fugitive slaves who arrived in need of food and shelter. In the long-term, the ASC provided incoming blacks with education and employment opportunities. In the same year, a women’s auxiliary was organized in Toronto for the purpose of raising money to help clothe, feed and house three hundred black refugees. The black and white women on the committee held bazaars and entertainments, raising close to $1,000 in its first year.
Toronto’s newly opened St. Lawrence Hall hosted an antislavery lecture by British Parliamentarian and abolitionist George Thompson entitled Slavery. On succeeding evenings the eloquent African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and American clergyman Reverend Samuel J. May addressed large crowds on the subject of abolition in a series of well-attended lectures.
Douglass later commented in his newspaper on the lack of racial discrimination he encountered both on board the Canadian steamer that carried them across Lake Ontario, and at the luxurious hotel where he stayed in the Toronto.
September 10-13, 1851
The North American Convention of Colored Freemen was called in Toronto by Henry Bibb, publisher of the Voice of the Fugitive, an antislavery newspaper at Sandwich, now part of Windsor. Toronto was selected as the venue as it was recognized as a safe place to congregate. Blacks from across Canada, the northern United States and England gathered to discuss strategies for assisting fugitive slaves and free blacks in the wake of the US Fugitive Slave Law.
Josiah Henson, who founded the Dawn Settlement at Dresden, and who is believed to have been a model for “Uncle Tom” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous antislavery novel, was a speaker. Abraham Doras Shadd and the Reverend Samuel Ringgold Ward, both noted African-American abolitionists, moved to Canada West after attending the convention.
You can read the autobiography of Samuel Ringgold Ward on the Toronto Public Library's Digital Archive.
Originally printed serially in the National Era beginning in June, 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was published in both Toronto and Montreal. The Globe printed a series of excerpts, bringing an uncounted number of Torontonians into the abolitionist fold.
By 1857, it was performed as a play entitled Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Slave Life at Toronto's Royal Lyceum Theatre.
Edited by Mary Ann Shadd, arguably the first female publisher in Canada, the Provincial Freeman was first issued in Windsor, then in Toronto in 1854-1855, and eventually in Chatham. One of her co-editors was Reverend Samuel Ringgold Ward, the first traveling agent for the Antislavery Society of Canada. The weekly newspaper advocated antislavery, independence, and integration, and ran stories of the successes of black people living in Canada.
Mary Ann Shadd's sister, Emmeline Shadd, graduated from the Toronto Normal School (teachers' college) with a first class certificate, and began teaching at a school in Caledon.
The Secretary of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society, William Still, visited Toronto, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Buxton, and Chatham to interview former slaves about their experience of settling in Canada West. He managed one of the busiest Underground Railroad stations, the Philadelphia branch.
In 1871, published The Underground Railroad, including the personal stories of dozens of freedom-seekers. It remains one of the most important sources for the history of antebellum African Canadian Toronto.
American-born Alexander Thomas Augusta graduated from the Toronto School of Medicine. Dr. Augusta operated his own pharmacy on Yonge Street and was the physician for the House of Industry, on Elm Street in the heart of St. John's Ward.
The firm of Armstrong, Beere and Hime took a panoramic photograph of Toronto, capturing in its lens what is believed to be the earliest photograph of a black woman in Toronto.
You can see the whole series of 1858 panoramic photographs of Toronto on the Toronto Public Library website.
Wilson Ruffin Abbott, the first African-Canadian politician in what is now Ontario, ran for Toronto City Council in St. Patrick’s Ward. With the help of William Still and his Underground Railroad station at Philadelphia, Mrs. Ann Maria Jackson arrived from Delaware on the Underground Railroad, accompanied by seven children aged 5 to 17. The family was reunited when her two oldest sons also escaped to Toronto.
The children of African-American immigrants, Philip Judah and Reuben Custaloe were listed as 8th grade (Junior Division) prize-winners at Toronto’s Louisa Street Elementary School.
John Anderson, a former slave who had accidentally killed a white man while fleeing his Missouri owner, was tried at Toronto. Toronto blacks protested in front of Osgoode Hall when US authorities demanded his extradition. British jurists advised that he should be freed, and local magistrates released him on a technicality. This was the last fugitive slave extradition case between Canada and the US.
1861 to 1865
The American Civil War is a watershed in the history of black migration to British North America. Many African-Canadians, including those living in Toronto, enlisted in the Union army following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Mary Ann Shadd, married since 1856 to Toronto black man Thomas Cary, became the only female recruiting officer in the Union Army.
Of eight black surgeons who served the US Colored Troops (USCT), two were graduates of the Buxton school and three had been trained at the Toronto School of Medicine.
Anderson Ruffin Abbott graduated from the Toronto School of Medicine, becoming the first Canadian-born black doctor. Abbot had studied under Dr. A. T. Augusta for four years, and served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination Mary Todd Lincoln presented Dr. Abbott with the plaid shawl the president had worn at his inauguration.
In 1863, Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta was commissioned as a major in the Union army. Two years later he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in 1865, making him the highest ranking black officer in the United States military. After the war he became the Director of the Freedmen's Bureau Hospital in Georgia and later taught at Howard University Medical School. Augusta was the first African American officer to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Samuel Gridley Howe, an American abolitionist, was appointed by President Lincoln as Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau. He visited Canada to interview local officials who worked with African-American immigrants and former slaves, including several people who were now leading successful lives in Toronto. At that time, Toronto was recognized as a model case study where African-Americans who had escaped slavery were free to live and work.
Howe's report, entitled Refugees from Slavery in Canada West, gave a very detailed and personal look at the lives of Blacks in Toronto at mid-century. After the Union victory, it provided a template for Freedmen's Bureau efforts to help America's 4 million freed slaves prepare for new lives in freedom.
General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox on April 9, signaling an end to the American Civil War. On April 14, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Washington’s Ford Theatre.
When the news reached Toronto the Globe published its first black-bordered edition. Memorial services were held in churches, black and white, throughout the city. The African Canadian community held a special meeting to honour the “Great Emancipator.”
Wilson Ruffin Abbott, who moved to Toronto in 1837, had become a very successful businessman and landowner. An inventory taken in 1871 indicated that he owned 42 houses, 5 vacant lots and a warehouse.
William Peyton Hubbard, son of former slaves and a graduate of the Toronto Model School, ran for Alderman in Ward 4. Although defeated that time, he won the next election, in 1894, and thirteen subsequent annual elections. A champion of social justice, Hubbard argued against tax increases that would have put Chinese laundry owners out of business, and lobbied to keep Ontario Hydro in public hands. William P. Hubbard was remembered fondly for his eloquence as “Old Cicero”.
William P. Hubbard was elected to the city-wide Board of Control and was named Vice Chairman. He became the only black deputy mayor in the history of Toronto.
Albert Calvin Jackson, the youngest son of former slave Ann Maria Jackson, became Canada’s first black postman. Initially, white co-workers refused to allow him to take up his position, and he was given the job of hall porter. Toronto's black community rallied and their protest was reported in the press. It being an election year, John A. MacDonald intervened and Jackson was reinstated. Jackson remained in this position for thirty-six years. In 2013, city council approved a laneway naming in his honour, Albert Jackson Lane, on Harbord Street between Brunswick Avenue and Borden Street.
Black Canadians resisted the racial discrimination which prevented them from enlisting in the British Expeditionary Force in World War I. In 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed. It was the only black regiment to serve in WWI. Although originally mustered in Nova Scotia, it drew soldiers from across the country, including 5 men from Toronto: William Cook, Harry Linden Day, Charles Nelson, John Sullivan, and John Lewis Sullivan.