By TOM GODFREY
On the eve of Black History Month, we should pause to remember some of those closer to home who bravely stood up and fought to improve our lives in early Toronto.
Our community has fostered trailblazers in all fields and we are fortunate to have had the first Black Alderman and sometimes Acting Mayor of Toronto, William Peyton Hubbard, elected 116 years ago and who proudly served this city from 1898 to 1901.
”Alderman Hubbard on entering Council had to overcome color prejudice,” a Globe editorialist wrote in 1904, “but by his splendid defence of the public interest … he forged his way to the front rapidly.”
Hubbard’s work spawned activists like Harry Gairey, Charles Roach, Dudley Laws, Sherona Hall, Daniel G. Hill, Lincoln Alexander and others who helped to open doors for others from the 1940s onwards.
It was in January 1945 that Gairey, who died at 98, became incensed when his son was refused entry into an indoor Yonge St. skating rink due to the colour of his skin and that sparked a public uproar that led to the opening up of city facilities to all residents.
Gairey was a former sleeping car porter who helped organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters which obtained changes in the way Blacks were treated.
Beside him was Stanley G. Grizzle, now 95, who was also a former railway porter who helped form the Young Men’s Negro Association of Toronto and was president of the Toronto Canadian Pacific Railroad Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters from 1946 to 1962.
Grizzle was appointed a Citizenship Court Judge in 1978 and was recipient of the Order of Ontario and Order of Canada for his work in civil rights.
Carrying the torch was Roach, one of the co-founders of Caribana, who with retired teacher Lennox Farrell, Laws and Hall founded the Black Action Defense Committee in 1988 following the shooting of Lester Donaldson to protest the killing of Blacks by police that eventually led to the creation of the Special Investigations Unit.
Hill, who was appointed the first full-time director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1962, went on to become Ontario Ombudsman, founder of the still-operating Ontario Black History Society and wrote The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada.
In print at the time was Contrast Newspaper, founded and published by Al Hamilton for about 16 years before it was sold and is now defunct. Many journalists honed their craft at Contrast, including myself, Royson James, Hamlin Grange, Jojo Chintoh, Harold Hoyte, Cecil Foster and Arnold Auguste, who founded rival Share Newspaper in 1978.
It has been more than 150 years since the first two newspapers geared to Blacks hit the streets. “The Voice of the Fugitive” was published in 1851 by former slave Henry Bibb, and “The Provincial Freeman” was edited by Mary Ann Shadd in 1853. Shadd is believed to be the first Black newspaperwoman in North America and the first female publisher in Canada.
One hundred years later, a young Alexander was pounding the hustings to win a seat in Hamilton West to become the first Black Member of Parliament serving from 1968 to 1980. He later was named the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1985 to 1991.
Alexander followed Etobicoke’s Leonard Braithwaite, a former alderman, who was elected the first Black Member of the Ontario legislature in 1963. The popular Braithwaite, who spoke out against racial segregation in Ontario schools and for the rights of minorities, was re-elected in 1967 and 1971.
Braithwaite was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada and was appointed to the Order of Ontario.
There would be other Black politicians like former MPs Jean Augustine, Howard McCurdy and Ovid Jackson, MPPs Alvin Curling, who also served as Canada’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Mary Anne Chambers and Margarett Best.
And one man who gave back tenfold to the community was Clovis John Brooks, who founded the Domino League of Canada and a scholarship that has helped hundreds of at-risk youths. The long-time activist was a recipient of the Order of Canada and the City of Toronto proclaimed November 3, 1986 as John Brooks Day.
Not surprisingly, many of the lonely immigrants arriving from Jamaica and the Caribbean in the 1960s were welcomed at the Jamaican Canadian Association that has been a backbone of the community since 1962. The JCA has produced outstanding community leaders like Roy Williams, Bromley Armstrong, Phyllis Whyte and George King.
And despite the many protests and demonstrations, it is welcoming to see Toronto Police recruit more minority officers with the highest-ranking Black cop so far being retired Deputy Chief Keith Forde, who has led the way for others like Deputy Chiefs Peter Sloly and Mark Saunders.
Still, the community cannot rest as there are other pressing issues to be dealt with, one being the racial profiling and carding of Black youth by police.