In 2011, Dr. Cheryl started doing archival research for her dissertation on Canada’s history of Black beauty culture. She did not know what she would find, but quickly it became clear that newspapers were the key to understanding the past in terms of the everyday. Meaning, they do not represent “the truth” nor are they complete facts. Instead their pages help us to make sense of the perceptions and observations about moments in history that actually happened but that are not remembered, in most cases, the way they were at the time they were written about in the newspapers.
Today, we have social media and a 24-hour news cycle that purports to tell us “everything we need to know” but in reality, just like the newspapers of a century ago, a century from now the pieces of our present moment—our everyday experiences—will be pieced together through someone, like me, looking back at the media culture of our times.
The entire BREC collection consists of approximately 850 textual records, however, we have compiled the records that best reflect the time period, eliminating repetitive notices and/or advertisements for blackface performances from the site, but they remain in Dr. Cheryl’s textual record. While we recognize that this newspaper collection prioritizes Toronto, the examples from other major cities in Canada during the period catalogued on BREC contain similar acts, performers, and themes. The image collection, however, represents blackface performance from coast to coast.
The newspapers featured on this site were culled from The Toronto Star Newspaper Centre at the Toronto Reference Library, and in the case of The Dawn of Tomorrow, microfilm at The D. B. Weldon Library, University of Western Ontario. All of these records were collected by Dr. Cheryl and catalogued by her team (Lucy and Carianne).
The Globe was founded in 1844 by journalist and politician George Brown. By 1900, through a mixture of news, features, forceful editorials, and technological innovation it became required reading for the educated and business community in Toronto. The Globe, a morning newspaper that oriented toward both Liberal and Conservative audiences respectively, still tended to lean to the political right. In 1936, The Globe merged with The Mail and Empire, which formed through the 1895 merger of two conservative newspapers, The Toronto Mail and Toronto Empire. Today, it is called The Globe & Mail.
The Globe catalogue on BREC spans 1862 to 2007, when a blackface incident at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario shocked the public. With a headline read, “Borat would have approved,” The Globe article, appearing on February 24, 2007 represents one of the last reports in the newspaper on a blackface incident that seemed to condone the behaviour, without critiquing its latent anti-Blackness. After 2007, The Globe’s editorial tone changed to reflect the insidiousness of blackface’s return to university campuses.
The first editorial in The Globe on the appearance of blackface in Toronto was reported on July 12, 1862 when “Jim Crow and Dan Tucker” (fictional characters) appeared as amusements in the city. Four years earlier, on August 3, 1858 the newspaper reported on a Toronto celebration of the anniversary of Emancipation in “the British West India Islands.” This report is possibly the first media coverage of Emancipation Day events in Canada. The events included sermons, speeches, a march/parade, a trip to Toronto’s Island, and musical performances.
“The members of the Toronto Association, accompanied by the members of the Young Canada Society, met in the Baptist Church, Sayer Street, where fervent prayers were offered up for the total abolition of Slavery throughout the world,” The Globe reported.
The Globe is an example of the complicated history of blackface in Canada. On the one hand, it promoted racial caricature via mass entertainment but on the other hand, it reported on Black community events and acts of resistance to pervasive anti-Blackness. Of all the newspapers documented in BREC, The Globe has the largest volume of articles, editorials and photographs of blackface performers, performances, and the places and spaces where blackface was performed on a regular basis for over 145 years.
For more on Emancipation Day and Black community in the nineteenth century, see the work of Natasha Henry, educator, historian and curriculum consultant. For more on early minstrelsy in Ontario, see Stephen Johnson’s The Juba Project, which documents early blackface minstrelsy in Britain from 1842-1852, and the actors, theatrical shows where blackface was performed prior to the 1860s. BREC is focused on post-1860s blackface minstrelsy and its coverage in the media and communities.
Evening Star and Toronto Daily Star
The Evening Star became a significant publication of record in Toronto, and in 1899 was recognized by progressive businessmen as a labour newspaper; it also became a voice for the federal Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, though not a political party newspaper, its editorial focus leaned to the political left. In 1900, the Evening Star became The Toronto Daily Star (1900-68).
By 1929, The Daily Star had a circulation of 175,000, becoming the largest circulation newspaper in Canada. Like the Toronto Telegram (1876 to 1971) it began as an evening newspaper that competed for a local audience of middle- and lower-income readers. However, where the Telegram supported the Conservative Party at the federal and the provincial levels, The Daily Star continued to support the Liberal Party. In 1971, it became the Toronto Star.
The Evening Star catalogue on BREC spans 1894 to 1899; The Daily Star spans 1900 to 1994. The records in this collection are not as extensive as The Globe, which indicates that readers of these two newspapers (and by extension the electorate for Canada’s two federal political parties) differed in their interest in blackface entertainment. But, paradoxically, where The Globe frequently reported on Black acts of resistance and/or celebration, The Evening Star and Daily Star consistently reported on alleged crimes committed by Black Torontonians.
On March 7, 1894, The Evening Star reported on a minstrel performance by an act known as “the Barlow Bros” who appeared at the Academy of Music. This blackface due composed of Milt G. Barlow (1843-1904) and William Arthur who he first performed with in the 1860s. “This well-known minstrel troupe will open a three-days engagement … on Thursday evening,” reported The Daily Star. Three days later, the newspaper reported that The St. Alphonsus Club would be giving its own minstrel show that “promises to outrival all other similar entertainments given this season.” This appearance of a professional minstrel show and a community-based amateur show reveals how overlapping and interchangeable the genre was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Mamie Wilson, a colored girl from the Southern States, was sent to the Mercer Reformatory for six months for the theft of $115 and $200 worth of clothing from her traveling companion, Rose Davis, also colored, with whom she had been rooming in Charles street,” reported The Daily Star on July 3, 1911. Given that the culture was infected with theories and beliefs in eugenics and the supposed degeneration of those persons who were not Anglo-Saxon Protestant (and male), this reporting should be read through a critical lens. Editorials depicting Black girls as “violent” and/or “mentally ill” represent some of the first instances of racial profiling and demonstrate the pervasive anti-Blackness of the times as they reveal a disavowal of Black children's innocence.
For more on historical newspapers in Toronto see Jamie Bradburn’s Tales of Toronto.
Dawn of Tomorrow
On July 14, 1923 The Dawn of Tomorrow began publication in London, Ontario. It was edited by African American James F. Jenkins. The Dawn catalogue on BREC spans 1923 to 1970. Between 1923 and 1927, it covered the establishment of a Black community centre in Montreal; the activities of the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) church, including meetings that were held in London, Chatham, and North Buxton; and an international conference at Owen Sound in 1927. The Dawn also reported on Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and an annual convention that was held in Montreal in 1923. By 1925 the newspaper had reduced the frequency of publication to twice monthly, and when Jenkins died suddenly in 1931, his widow, Christina Elizabeth, continued publishing it on a monthly basis until her death in 1967. The newspaper remained in print until at least 1970.
The Dawn did not report on blackface; on the contrary, its pages serve as active resistance to anti-Black racism and blackface minstrelsy's degrading racial caricature. In 1923, The Dawn widely promoted Shuffle Along, which was written, performed, produced, and directed by African Americans. The show, which began on Broadway in 1921, went on to become one of the most successful musicals of the decade. In addition to Black American achievements, The Dawn was the outlet for Black Canadian achievements in the 1920s through 1940s.
On May 10, 1924, for example, the newspaper printed a photograph of the Owen Sound Colored Orchestra, and on November 28, 1930, an advertisement for the Colored Elite Quartette of London, Ontario, which had four singers, also appeared in the newspaper. These Canadian choral performers likely modelled their performance after other Black musical groups which had come before them such as The O’Banyoun Jubilee Singers, founded by Josephus O’Banyoun in the early 1860s in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
All Canadian choral performers undoubtedly modelled themselves after the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, an a cappella group that started out on a small fundraising tour for the school in 1871, rising to international prominence thereafter. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are credited with the early popularization of the Negro spiritual tradition, a tradition that directly rebuked the depiction of Blackness that was portrayed in minstrel shows.
The Dawn also printed photographs of African Canadians who accomplished triumphs in the entertainment industries. For example, on July 23, 1923, a photograph of Harold Jackson of Chatham, manager of the American Radio Relay League, traffic manager of the Chatham Radio Club, and owner of the first and only licensed ‘‘Negro Radio in Canada’’ appeared on The Dawn’s front page. The Dawn catalogue on BREC helps us locate Black resistance to anti-Black racism prior to the 1960s. These acts of resistance range from editorials about overcoming adversity to the accomplishment of “Black firsts” in entertainment but also sports, health care, social clubs.
For more on The Dawn see Cheryl Thompson’s “Cultivating Narratives of Race, Faith, and Community: The Dawn of Tomorrow, 1923–1971,” Canadian Journal of History, 50.1 (Spring-Summer/printemps-été 2015): 30-67.
Contrast (1969-1991) was a Black newspaper founded by Alberta-born Alfred W. Hamilton in Toronto. Hamilton, who had previously served as managing editor of the West Indian News Observer (1967-1969) before launching Contrast in February 1969, hired many editors during the newspaper’s first decade. Harold Hoyte, Jojo Chintoh, Austin Clarke, and Royson James all edited the newspaper at various times over the course of its 22 years.
In addition to editorials from two years of The Observer, the Contrast catalogue on BREC spans 1971 to 1989. Contrast was a voice for Black community to combat racism, prejudice, and community challenges, in addition to its stories about Black triumphs, celebrations, and accomplishments. “Protest was the order of the day,” said Foster in a 1993 interview with the Ryerson Review of Journalism, citing police harassment, immigration irregularities and wrongful deportations throughout the 1970s.
This newspaper has been fundamental to BREC but also much of the research that Dr. Cheryl has done in her decade’s long career studying Black community, media-making, and narratives of race, place and space in Canada. Her first book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, for instance, simply could not have been written with the level of granular details about the growth and expansion of Black beauty culture in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s if it were not for Contrast.
Located at 28 Lennox Street in an old house converted into office space in the Bathurst and Bloor neighbourhood euphemistically known as “Blackhurst” for its stretch of Black-owned businesses and residents, Contrast is remembered as “the eyes and ears” of the Black community because the newspapers’ roster of Black writers and photojournalists covered topics like police brutality, systemic racism, and media bias at a time when dominant media (like The Globe & Mail and Toronto Star) scarcely did, and it did so from an unapologetically Black point of view.
For example, on March 6, 1971 it marked the two-year anniversary of the Sir George Williams University (present-day Concordia University) incident in Montreal. “The confrontation which allegedly resulted in $3 million damage and saw 98 students (42 Black) held criminally responsible for engaging over a period of two academic years in blatant racist practices against Black Students,” reported Contrast, concluding with the declaration: “Let us therefore brighten the future of our people by continuing with revolutionary conviction and undeterred fortitude to complete the very difficult, selfless task we have undertaken. We must engage ourselves in the struggle... Now.”
The Contrast catalogue helps to construct a counter-textual-and-visual narrative to discussions of race that were taking place during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the dominant print media, which tended to reinforce either multiculturalist rhetoric or give a platform to the Ku Klux Klan and/or expressed worries by white Canadians over the rate of immigration from the Caribbean, Asia, South Asia and Africa, as evidenced by a November 25, 1974 feature in the New York Times, titled, “A Racial Trend in Immigration Is Troubling Canadians.”
In 1978, Share, a weekly community newspaper published by Arnold A. Auguste, who came to Canada in 1970 from Trinidad and Tobago, was the other Black newspaper servicing the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and like Contrast, its pages reached Edmonton, Montreal, and Halifax.
The Share catalogue on BREC spans 1978 to 2013. This timeframe begins with an article on April 29, 1978 which reported on a fire that was deemed an arson that destroyed the newspaper’s office. While it is unknown if it was racially motivated, the office was located in Auguste’s apartment, and the fire resulted in $15,000 (approx. $61,450 today) in damages. "Share," said Auguste to his newspaper at the time, “has a commitment to its readers which we will honor.” And the newspaper has kept that commitment for 43 years. On May 14, 2013, an article written by Ron Fanfair celebrating the life of Viola Desmond and Ryerson University’s annual awards ceremony to commemorate Desmond's legacy, bookends BREC's Share catalogue.
“Everybody couldn’t get a job at the Toronto Star or the Sun, and community newspapers were big and many of the major news organizations had community newspapers,” recalled photojournalist Jules Elder in an interview for Ears, Eyes, Voice: Black Canadian Photojournalists 1970s-1990s regarding her time spent writing for Share.
While Contrast was the ears and eyes of Black community, Share gave us a voice—to be seen, heard, and celebrated—in ways that were distinct from Contrast. One of those differences was its reporting on Black beauty pageants. “Beautiful belles all,” read a Share headline on July 15, 1978 in reference to the Miss Black Ontario Pageant, which is, today, a national competition. In 1977, at the first Miss Black Ontario, 18-year-old Tonya Maxine Williams (best known as Dr. Olivia Barber Winters on the American daytime drama The Young and the Restless from 1990 to 2005 and 2007 to 2012) was chosen Miss Oshawa and then she became Miss Black Ontario at the pageant held at the Royal York Hotel.
The pages of Share, like Contrast, give us a glimpse into Black community as it was; it is a story that is often in contradiction with depictions in the dominant media and/or it contains moments that are forgotten today.
For example, in 1997 Share ran a series of articles protesting Brian Conley, a white British comedian, and his quest to appear in blackface as part of a musical on the life of Al Jolson. The musical, named Jolson, was set to appear at the Royal Alexandra Theatre from June to September. While theatre magnate David Mirvish listened to the concerns, as reported by Share, Mirvish “felt that the issue had to be allowed to be there because it was central to how Jolson made his living and created his career.”
This debate about blackface in the theatre versus the concerns of Black community is at the crux of BREC’s mission to tell the complicated story of blackface in Canada but also Black resistance to its latent racism.