February was black history month in the U.S. and Canada. To celebrate and bring February to a close, we bring you the stories of 28 Black Canadians you should know. 28… a drop in the bucket, a tiny, miniscule drop given the massive contributions that people of the black community have made to our nation.
Ferguson Jenkins is the first Canadian to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Not only was he a pitcher for the Phillies, Cubs, Rangers and the Red Sox but he was also a Harlem Globetrotter.
He was a National League All Star 3 times in his career and was also the first Canadian to win a Cy Young Award.
He was one of only five players ever to have more than 3,000 strikeouts, with fewer than 1,000 walks.
Bruny Surin brought home gold for Canada in the Atlanta Olympics in the 4×100 m relay.
Now retired from track and field, he now runs the Bruny Surin Foundation, which offers bursaries and other support to young athletes while to continue in their sports and in their studies.
James Mink was the oldest of 11 children of a slave, known only as Mink. His mother and father were both slaves who were owned by a United Empire Loyalist. In the 1840s, while the slave trade continued in the United States James and one of his brothers found themselves in Kingston, Ontario where they set up a livery and coach service.
Eventually Mr. Mink made his way to Toronto, where he opened another livery and coach service. He and his brother would transport passengers between Toronto and Kingston (the capital of Canada at the time) and took on the mail route too. He opened a hotel near St. Lawrence Market in Toronto and also established Toronto’s first public transportation system.
After having arranged his daughter’s marriage, his son-in-law took Minnie to Virginia on a supposed honeymoon. There he sold her into slavery. When James discovered his daughter’s fate, the millionaire business baron, petitioned the British to buy her back on his behalf.
An arsonist would burn down the livery and the hotel some years later. Though Mink had lost everything, he rebuilt a livery where City Hall now stands and when he died, his funeral and procession was reported in the papers because he still held that much respect and esteem in the area.
Anne Clare Cools
Anne Clare Cools is Canada’s first black senator. In fact, she was the first black woman to be appointed a senator in North America. Born in Barbados, she began her activism in university when she participated in a 10 day sit-in at what would become Concordia University, to protest racism. She was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment for her participation.
Later, she would found one of the first shelters for abused women in Canada.
She is our longest serving senator. After being appointed by the Liberals she “crossed the floor” only to be removed from the Conservative Caucus after speaking out again Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper. She now serves as an Independent.
Rosemary Brown was the first black woman to be elected to serve in a Canadian provincial legislature. She served as a British Columbia MLA from 1972 through 1979.
She was also the first black woman to run for a federal party leadership, narrowly losing the NDP leadership to Ed Broadbent.
She’s been awarded both the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada for her service.
Thornton and Lucie Blackburn
Thornton and Lucie Blackburn are essential to the history of black people in Canada and to Canada’s role in the Underground Railway. Both slaves in Louisville, Kentucky, they escaped to Detroit, Michigan and lived there for two years. Their “owner” then tracked them down there and attempted to re-enslave them. They fled to Canada (with the help of about 400 men who stormed a jail to free Thornton) and their case was brought before the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada for extradition.
The Lieutenant-Governor denied the extradition request making clear that Canada would not returned escaped slaves to the United States. His reasoning was that life enslavement was too severe a punishment for any crime less than murder and besides, in the case of slaves, Canada did not find it reasonable that a “man could steal himself”.
(FYI for modern times: Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, technically refugees to Canada, spent the rest of their days contributing to the community of Toronto economically with a cab business and other properties, and in the wider community assisting former slaves to resettle… just pointing that out)
Away from politics and freeman for a moment and back to sports. Donovan Bailey. Once the fastest man in the world, he was the first Canadian to legitimately break the 10s/100m speed barrier. His Olympic speed record was left standing until Usain Bolt came along and smashed records all over the place.
Since retiring, he’s become a sports commentator, opened a sports injury clinic in Oakville, Ontario and also founded a sport management company.
Mr. Bailey brought a total of 9 medals home to Canada, 6 of them gold during his sprinting career.
Marie-Joseph Angelique was a Portuguese-born slave who was tried and convicted of setting fire to her owner’s home and with it, burning down much of what is now known as Old Montreal.
Why is a convicted arsonist included in this list? Well, it is now generally accepted that she only confessed to arson because she was tortured and was likely only convicted on the basis of her reputation for being a wilful, stubborn runaway slave. All things which the Canadian justice system now clearly rejects as the basis for guilt.
She was hung the very day she was sentenced to death, on a scaffold in front of the remains of a burned-out church. Her body was then thrown into a fire and her ashes scattered into the debris.
Lincoln Alexander served in the Royal Canadian Air Force until the end of World War II, during a time when the RCAF generally restricted non-whites from entering that service.
After the war he earned his BA and then his LL.B. from my alma mater, Osgoode Hall Law School.
He was the first black Canadian to sit in the House of Commons when he became the MP for Hamilton West, serving a total of 12 years. He then further served as the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the first person of colour to hold that post.
Since 2015, January 15th has been observed as Lincoln Alexander Day across the country.
Michael Lee-Chin is a Jamaican-born Canadian businessman and philanthropist. His mother sold Avon products and his father ran a local grocery. Despite these beginnings, he has risen to prominence in business. As a result, he has donated $30 million to the Royal Ontario Museum, $10 million to a fund to support corporate citizenship, and another $10 million to the Joseph Brant Hospital Foundation.
He is currently the Chairman of the National Commercial Bank of Jamaica.
William Hall was the first black person and the first Canadian sailor to be awarded the Victoria Cross for valour. He was serving in the Far East aboard the HMCS Shannon during a revolt of Indian regiments of the British Army. He was called to rescue a British Garrison in Lucknow and was one of only two men to survive the siege. The VC was awarded for his gallantry during this siege.
Elijah McCoy was born in Ontario to freed slaves from Kentucky. He was educated in Scotland as a mechanical engineer and later lived in Detroit, Michigan.
In those days, many young black boys were employed oiling machines, including trains, to prevent them from jamming up. Many lives and many more limbs were lost in this employment. Mr. McCoy designed a self-lubricating device, later copied by other manufacturers, which prevented this sort of injury and death.
He is the reason we now say “the real McCoy“, as this is how well his self-lubricating device worked. McCoy was the owner of over 50 patents by the time of his death.
Sam Langford was the “Greatest Fighter Nobody Knows” according to ESPN. According to boxing historians, he was perhaps the greatest fighter of all time.
He was born in Nova Scotia and later moved to Boston, where colour bars often prevented him from fighting in championship fights. He did win the World Coloured Boxing Championship title and in keeping with the rampant racism of the time he was known as the Boston Tarbaby.
He continued fighting for a living though he had lost his sight in one eye and would eventually become completely blind. Broke he moved to Harlem in New York City where fans raised money for surgery to restore his sight.
Josiah Henson was a slave in Maryland. He was entrusted with transporting a number of slaves to his owner’s brother’s farm, on a promise from the owner that there would be potential manumission (the ability of a slave to own himself). Henson believed the promise and so would not allow any slave to escape during the transport. That promise was false however, and never fulfilled.
Henson eventually escaped with his wife and family and settled near Dresden, Ontario were he worked with abolitionists to create the Dawn Settlement. Some believe he was the inspiration for Uncle Tom of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and because that affiliation helped him to raise money for the Dawn Settlement, he allowed it to continue until his death.
Willie O’Ree was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick and was the first black player in the National Hockey League. He was often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of hockey for breaking the colour barrier in the sport.
O’Ree managed this despite the fact that he was almost completely blind in one eye, due to an injury received earlier.
It would be another 18 years before a second black player, also a Canadian, would be drafted in to the NHL.
Richard Pierpoint was born a slave and freed after winning his emancipation by fighting in the American Revolution. For his service on the British side, he was awarded some land in Niagara where he settled and became in important griot (storyteller).
He was instrumental in creating an all-black unit that fought in the War of 1812 and later helped freed slaves navigate the Underground Railroad and resettle.
Carrie Best was a Nova Scotian poet, journalist and social activist. Born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, she founded The Clarion, the first black-owned and published newspaper in the province.
She hosted the Quiet Corner radio program for 12 years and became a member of the Order of Canada in 1979.
She used her various forums to fight against segregation, discrimination and racism throughout her life.
Cowboy. Legend. John Ware was born a slave on a cotton plantation and attained his freedom at the end of the American Civil War.
He ended up in Alberta and in Eurocentric 19th century Alberta, became a well-respected man who was spoken of with awe by his contemporaries. It was said that he could stop a steer cold and wrestle it to the ground, that he could pick up an 18-month old calf on his back, and that he could wrestle a full grown bronc to the ground and shoe him.
The fact that it is impossible to separate the legend from the man speaks to how revered he was in the middle of cowboy country.
Portia White was raised in Halifax. She was the first black Canadian concert singer to reach international renown, despite problems that she had with bookings because of her race.
She retired early from public singing, though she did return from time to time including to since for Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Charlottetown in 1964.
Few recordings of her voice remain.
Mary Anne Shadd
Mary Anne Shadd was born to free parents in Delaware. Her parents were activists who were active in the Underground Railroad, which Ms. Shadd eventually followed to Canada.
She began the Provincial Freeman newspaper, which focused on the benefits of freeman relocating to Canada, becoming the first black woman in North America to publish a paper. At first, though, she had to have a man “stand in” for her and pretend to be publisher.
Later, she would return to the U.S. to become the first black woman to obtain a law degree from Howard University and was active in the suffrage movement.
Addie Aylestock took up domestic work in Toronto to support herself while attending the Medical Missionary College. She had hoped to work in Africa but since that would have required further education in the U.S., she chose to remain in Canada.
She attended the Toronto Bible College instead and became the first ordained female minister of the British Methodist Episcopal Church and the first black female reverend in Canada.
Viola Desmond, from Halifax, trained as a teacher but joined her husband in a barber and beauty salon. She was visiting New Glasgow, Nova Scotia when she decided to buy a movie ticket. She bought her ticket went in and sat in the gallery, not knowing that tickets sold to black Canadians were for the balcony only.
Theatre staff demanded that she leave the main floor and go to the gallery. When she refused she was arrested and injured her hip.
She was actually charged with defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia of the difference between the tax for the main floor and the balcony. A whopping 1 cent. Her fight with the government would help to raise awareness about Canadian segregation and would help galvanize opinion both in Canada and internationally.
Mayann Francis was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia and took an early interest in issues around inequality. She worked for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission before going to the U.S. to earn a Master of Arts degree in Public Administration.
On her return to Canada, she was the assistant deputy minister and then the Director of the Ontario Women’s Directorate. She returned east to serve as the CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.
She became the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia in 2006, becoming the first black female to hold the position and the second black person (after Lincoln Alexander in Ontario).
Measha Bueggergosman is a Canadian opera singer and concert artist of international renown. She won 3 Grammy Awards for her 2005 performance in Songs of Innocence and of Experience. She’s also won a Juno award.
She is a Goodwill Ambassador for the Africa Medical and Research Foundation, where she has spoken about the benefits of musical therapy for children who have experienced conflict.
She stunned audiences worldwide when she performed the Olympic Hymn at the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics, in both English and French to reflect the official languages of Canada.
Chloe Cooley was a slave in Queenston, Upper Canada. She was bound and thrown into a boat to be transported to the U.S. to be sold. She put up such a fight that two witnesses reported the incident to Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe.
Simcoe, opposed to slavery even before he arrived in Upper Canada, used the incident to introduce an act to abolish slavery in Upper Canada. This was opposed as many of parliament were slave owners themselves. However, the government reached a compromise that would mean that no new slaves would be introduced in Upper Canada and the terms of their enslavement would be limited, meaning a gradual phasing out of slavery.
This was the first legislation of its kind in all of the British Empire and set the stage for the beginnings of the Underground Railroad, though the legislation did not free any slaves on enactment.
Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland, where she learned to follow geographical directions and about beneficial plants from her father and brothers while working in the fields. Determined to gain her freedom, while attempting to follow someone to freedom, she received a serious brain injury, which left her with sleep problems and seizures.
She married a freeman, which did not end her slavery and tried to convince him to escape to freedom with her. He refused. Her owner then fell ill and Ms. Tubman faced the option of being sold or escaping. She fled north to Philadelphia, where she learned about the Underground Railroad.
She returned often, as a “conductor” of slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad first from Philadelphia and then from St. Catherine’s, Ontario when a change in laws (that allowed escaped slaves in the North to be re-enslaved) left her unsafe again. Her trips into the U.S. to help slaves were brave and fearless, making her the legend she is today.
Dorothy Williams is a historian who specializes in Black Canadian History. Her published works have focused on the history of black people in Montreal. She also speaks on the importance of increasing black content in libraries and created Blacbiblio.com to make a comprehensive online resource of black history in Canada.
Her contribution to the historical record in Canada is extensive.