By RON FANFAIR
Howard Matthews, one of four partners in the city’s first soul food restaurant, has passed away.
The octogenarian teamed up with Toronto Argonauts quarterback John Henry Jackson and late National Football League and Canadian Football League punter Dave Mann and self-taught drummer and Order of Canada recipient Archie Alleyne to start the Underground Railroad restaurant in February 1969.
The popular restaurant, noted for its fish gumbo, ham hock, southern fried chicken, hot cornbread, casper squash, barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas and collard greens, changed ownership in 1982 before folding eight years later.
A classmate of Alleyne at Lansdowne Public School after migrating from St. Kitts at age 12 in 1947 to join his mother, Matthews demonstrated a passion for business in his teenage years.
Learning from the late Harry Gairey – a former restaurant owner and community advocate who at one time was considered the patriarch of Toronto’s Black community – how to cook and efficiently serve the public, Matthews co-founded the First Floor Jazz Club on Asquith Ave. and later transformed the Kibitzeria restaurant into a blues bar.
“In the 1960s, Howard helped to create an entrepreneurial spirit in Toronto’s Black community,” said historian and curator, Dr. Sheldon Taylor. “He put his money where his mouth was and took risks to ensure the city had a Black business presence.”
After performing one night in 1961 at the Colonial Tavern, American-born singer/songwriter, Salome Bey, went to the First Floor Jazz Club and met Matthews who was smitten by her.
They tied the nuptial knot in 1964.
“He had a good sense for music,” said Taylor. “Although Howard didn’t publicly play musical instruments, he supported jazz and blues in the city and that was very significant.”
Award-winning vocalist and actress, Jackie Richardson, said Matthews and Alleyne opened many closed doors in the community.
“I will remember him as a beautiful and gentle person who loved the arts and had a great knowledge of the arts,” she said. “When he spotted someone with potential, he would always be there in their ears with words of encouragement and inspiration. He had a big heart and was always looking for opportunities to bring the community closer.”
Order of Canada jazz artist, Joe Sealy, met Matthews through his association with Bey.
“After coming to Toronto in 1976 from Nova Scotia, I did many shows with her and that’s how I got to know Howard,” he said. “He was a wonderful supporter of the arts and someone that possessed a great sense of humour. He was sort of unassuming, but definitely powerful in his own way.”
In addition to his wife who has dementia, Matthews – who suffered a stroke a decade ago – is survived by their children, Marcus, Saidah Baba Talibah and Jacintha Tuku Matthews.