Though Illinois had some of the most progressive anti-discrimination laws in the United States after the Civil War, Blacks in Chicago in the early 1900s were subjected to the same prejudices as those in the South.
Jobs and decent housing were also scarce because of the fierce competition among different groups of people at a time when the city’s population was dramatically growing.
In 1913, cab driver Nathaniel Redmon and his partner, Goldie Bishop, along with their only child Helen, who was just a few months old, headed north of the border to Canada in search of an improved quality of life. Settling in Toronto, the couple married six years later and the union produced five more children.
Starting as a railroad porter, the family patriarch used his entrepreneurial skills to establish the first Black-owned haulage company in Toronto. Major developers in the city used Redmon Haulage, which had a fleet of 12 trucks, to haul bricks and lumber around town.
“The Redmons clearly had a hand in building the City of Toronto from the ground up,” said granddaughter Bernice Carnegie who, with other Canadian and American family members, hosted a reunion last weekend to celebrate the historic centenary of the Redmons presence in Canada.
Carnegie’s father, the late Herb Carnegie who passed away last year at age 92, worked for Redmon for a few years as a part-time driver on weekends and during the summer. So too did Redmon’s three sons, including the youngest and only living child, Freemon, who is 87.
“My dad was a very hard worker,” the octogenarian said. “He started his business from scratch with just one truck and ended up with a dozen vehicles. He secured a good contract with Leaside Blocks & Tiles and worked with them for years.”
Married to Nova Scotia-born Winnie Upshaw for the last 64 years, Freemon later owned a haulage company before becoming a home improvement specialist. Like their father, he and his two brothers Nathan and John also built their own homes.
Freemon and his family live in the house he built 63 years ago near Warden & Lawrence Ave. in Scarborough and the home that his parents constructed at 122 Belgravia Ave. still stands among many new residences.
“Grand-dad would set the blocks before he went off to work and when he came home he would put them in,” said Bernice Carnegie, whose mother Audrey – an avid reader and co-founder of the Herb Carnegie Future Aces Foundation – passed away in August 2003 at age 84.
Nathan Redmon, who died last April at age 95, erected the city’s first split level home and hand-made each of the concrete blocks for his parents’ house. After serving with Canada’s military in the electrical corps, he married Bernice Carnegie (Herb Carnegie’s sister) who was one of the city’s first Black registered nurses. She succumbed to lung cancer 20 years ago at age 76.
Family members – particularly the younger ones – got a glimpse of the Redmons’ vast contributions to the city at the reunion that included a fun day and a banquet at the Novotel Toronto North York.
“This is very important to our family,” said granddaughter, Marion Coleman, who lives in Willingboro, New Jersey. Her mother, Adele Brown, who returned to the United States at age 28 and died in June 2012 in her 96th year, was aware of the family gathering.
“She knew we were planning this event and it was important to her,” said Coleman. “This is something we thought we owed our family. There are cousins here in the same age group who are meeting for the first time.”
Family from Maryland, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey came for the reunion.
Bernice Carnegie compiled a commemorative journal – Redmon Roots – that was presented to each family member.
“Normally when the family gets together, it’s for weddings and funerals and we have been having much of the latter in the last few years,” she said. “This is a perfect opportunity for the young people to learn about the mark their grand and great grandparents left on this city.”