While the story of Black community in Ontario has been predominantly linked to histories of the Underground Railroad, BREC aims to make new connections between Black community and the growth and expansion of the railway, the North American theatrical circuit that brought touring American troupes through this region with great regularity, and the local, home-bred form of blackface, both in the professional theatre and amateur productions, that grew and expanded throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Portrait of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, organized at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1871. “The Story of the Jubilee Singers, Ella Sheppard Moore, 1851 - 1914 , Fisk Jubilee Singers,” 1875. Source: National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian, Wikipedia Commons.

“Fisk Jubilee Singers,” photograph, 1882. Source: Deep Roots Magazine [Creative Commons]

Black colleges and universities established in nineteenth-century America included Wilberforce in Ohio (1856), Howard University in Washington, D.C. (1867), Fisk University in Nashville (1866), Atlanta University in Georgia (1865), Morgan (today Morgan State) in Baltimore (1867), Hampton Institute (today Hampton University) in Virginia (1868), and Spelman Women’s College in Atlanta (1881). These universities would help to foster a new generation of African Americans who, a generation out of enslavement, were determined to create a new identity for themselves. This shift inconsciousness, known as the "New Negro" and "New Negro Woman," as Shane White and Graham White note, "entailed adeliberate and prideful display of back bodies, particularly those of women, ina manner that transcended hoary white stereotypes." [1] The photographicjournalism in the Black press also helped to challenge popular cultural myths about Black inferiority. The New Negro imagery was created during an era when the overwhelming majority of postcard, advertisements, and popular entertainment consisted of crude, degrading racial caricatures of Black people.

Choral music in the African Canadian community, which was largely centred in the church, became outlet to resist the pervasive anti-Blackness of the 19th century. The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee was the first of these groups to triumph. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were an a cappella group that started out on a small fundraising tour for the school in 1871; they soon rose to international prominence, performing in Europe before Queen Victoria of England, as well as at the White House for President Ulysses S. Grant. [2] In Canada, there were choral ensembles who modelled themselves after the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The O’Banyoun Jubilee Singers, founded by Josephus O’Banyoun in the early 1860s in Halifax,Nova Scotia, is one such group. The O’Banyoun Singers, which was comprised of seven singers and an accompanist, toured across North America and throughout Europe in the late nineteenth century. The Owen Sound Colored Orchestra and the London Elite Quartette were also performing "Negro spirituals" across Canada in the early 20th century.

Portrait of “S.R. Overstreet Basso, Famous Canadian Jubilee Singers,” ca. 1901-1902. Source: Archives and Library Canada, Andrew Audubon Merrilees fonds.

Poster for a performance by the Tennessee Warblers at the Opera House, Amherstburg, Ontario, “Puggsley Bros. Famous Tennessee Warblers: Shubert Lady Quartette,” ca. 1900. Source: Archives of Ontario, F 2076 Alvin D. McCurdy fonds, Wikipedia Commons.

Portrait of “Albert Jackson, mail carrier,” ca. Late 19th century. Source: Public Domain. 

The historical bulldozing and demolishing of Black communities has had the effect of erasing Black people - our histories and stories - from the historical Canadian memory. And because these histories are also erased from our educational systems - primary school, colleges and universities - many people are not aware of them. There has not been enough attention paid to the legacy of urban renewal projects in the 1960s through 1970s that decimated Black communities in Canada, removing them from the national narrative and collective memory. For this reason, Contrast newspaper (1969-1991) and Share magazine are two of the most valuable resources for telling the story of Black Canada during the period of urban renewal. As voices for Black community to combat racism, prejudice, and community challenges, in addition to its triumphs, celebrations, and accomplishments, they provide a reservoir of stories of Black resistance. There are neighbourhoods in Toronto, such as the Bloor and Bathurst neighbourhood (dubbed “Blackhurst”) that was a hub for Black community for over a century for West Indian immigrants but also for African Canadians who were multi-generations in the city, such as Albert Jackson, who was Toronto’s first Black letter carrier (a job he held for thirty-six years until his death in 1918), who was also born into slavery in Delaware. Jackson endured unimaginable racism delivering the mail in the Bloor and Bathurst neighbourhood in nineteenth-century Toronto.

BREC aims to reclaim Black Canadians stories, to remap the spaces and places of their origin, and the important role Black media played in keeping them alive during a period of anti-Black racism that has begun to received more scholarly attention over the past 15 years. BREC is not only a resource; it is also a change agent.

Poster for the Canadian Jubilee Singers, “A New Star Arisen in the Firmament of Song, Famous Canadian Jubilee Singers,” ca. 1901-1902. Source: Archives and Library Canada, Andrew Audubon Merrilees fonds.

Poster for the Canadian Jubilee Singers, organized by William and Sadie Carter in 1878 to c. 1907, who toured Great Britain and the United States, Hamilton, Ontario, c. 1880s. “Famous Canadian Jubilee Singers for 25 Years the Premier Jubilee Vocal Organization of America,” 1902. Source: Archive and Library Canada, Andrew Audubon Merrilees fonds.



[1] Shane White and Graham White, Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit (Ithaca, 1998), p. 191.

[2] Adrienne Shadd, The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton (Toronto, 2010), p. 190.



Negro Spirituals & Black Church History Facts

Source: YouTube.


When Bathurst was Blackhurst: the Black history of Mirvish Village

Source: The Agenda with Steve Paikin, YouTube.


Unsung Heroes: Albert Jackson

Source: Lucky Stickz, YouTube.




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