An exhibition featuring artefacts found during an archaeological dig of the new Toronto courthouse site in 2015, which unearths the history of the Black community in the 1800s will rotate in the rotunda at City Hall over the next five years.
Mayor John Tory made the announcement at a Black History Month reception he held at Toronto City Hall on February 22.
The excavation recovered tens of thousands of artefacts related to the site’s history as part of St. John’s Ward, or “The Ward.”
The site was inhabited partly by prominent members of Toronto’s early African-Canadian community and was home to refugee slaves who escaped via the Underground Railroad in the mid-19th century.
Many families of Irish, Chinese and Russian-Jewish descent also settled on this block up until the mid-20th century.
Due to the artefact collection’s size, variety, and degree of preservation, the archaeological assessment of the new Toronto courthouse site has provided an unprecedented level of insight into Toronto’s early multicultural history.
As part of their work, archaeologists recovered and documented artefacts including: leather shoes, women’s hosiery, perfume and nail polish bottles, smoking pipes, children’s toys and ceramic kitchenware. Additionally, the foundations of a British Methodist Episcopal church and several residential buildings and businesses were uncovered.
Mayor Tory told those gathered at City Hall that there are greater things to come where the artefacts are concerned.
Councillor Michael Thompson, who emceed the event, said Black History Month was created to acknowledge the contribution of Black Canadians to the development of Canada.
He noted that the contributions made by people of color are often overlooked and the celebration helps to set the record straight.
“As the most diverse city in the world when we talk about Black history we’re not saying that this is history that only blacks need to understand. That narrative would be too narrow, we’re saying it’s the history that everyone has to understand.”
Thompson noted that Toronto’s Black community has deep roots in the history of the city, highlighting that Toronto’s first taxicab was designed and built by an escaped slave from Kentucky, and that in 1893 William P. Hubbard, a black man, was the city’s alderman.
Historian and author, Karolyn Smardz Frost, introduced her new book, Steal Away Home, which took her ten years to write and tells the story of Cecilia Jane Reynolds, an African American slave who escaped when her owners visited Niagara with her.
Reynolds lived in St John’s Ward, and the foundation of her first home was unearthed in the excavation of the site that for many years was a parking lot.
Jean Augustine, the first black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada in 1993 and whose motion in the House of Commons resulted in Black History Month being celebrated, pondered the way forward for the Black community.
She said as Canada celebrates its sesquicentennial, “It’s important for us to ask the question, we’ve come thus far, we’re here at 150 Canada, where and how do we go forward and how do we go forward as a Black community? What is important for mayor and council, what is important for province and legislators, what is important for institutions and those who make decisions, what’s important for them to do to help us move forward with some of the situations that face us as Black Canadians, Canadians of African descent in this city.”
Augustine said there are some concerns that the community needs to see addressed as it moves ahead and “to ensure that the bright young people in our midst get what is necessary to move them forward.”
Nikki Clarke, president of the Ontario Black History Society, and Ehren Cory, divisional president of project delivery at Infrastructure Ontario also spoke at the event.
Jamaica-born poet, Nadine Williams, read her poem, The Fabric of Our Being, which concluded with the lyrics, “it is a hard road to travel and a mighty long way to go.”
The event was co-sponsored by Infrastructure Ontario and the Ontario Black History Society.