Black Canadians beyond the Underground Railroad: Did the 49th parallel make a difference?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Adrienne Shadd, Independent Scholar
Guest Contributor

This blog entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on ‘interculturalism and pluralism’.

For most Canadians, the only time that the Black presence enters onto the main stage of Canadian history is during the fabled period when the Underground Railroad spirited people of African descent into this country from the American South. Scenes of fugitive slaves running through the bushes being chased by bloodhounds with only the clothes on their backs are part and parcel of what one hears every February during Black History Month. What happened to them after they settled here seems to be of far less interest, let alone how they fared after the Civil War or by the turn of the twentieth century. What matters is the harrowing journey here, plus the fact that it was Canada that offered a haven to these poor, bedraggled refugees.

In 1979, a little-known PhD thesis by African-American historian Jonathan W. Walton was accepted by Princeton University that actually attempted to answer the question of how they fared upon settling and making this country their home. Entitled “Blacks in Buxton and Chatham, Ontario, 1830-1890: Did the 49th Parallel Make a Difference?” Walton’s thesis, its very title, threatened to put a lie to the oft-stated and widely-held belief not only that Canada had offered such a wondrous haven to thousands of fugitive American slaves, but also that Canada’s treatment of her African-Canadian citizens was vastly superior to that of her neighbour to the south of the 49th parallel.

So what does research on employment and income using primary sources reveal? Walton did extensive and detailed examinations of the 1851 through the 1871 Canadian censuses for Buxton and Chatham, and he suggested trends based on city/town directory information for 1881.

Walton’s findings were that while 1851-61 census data on occupations showed that Blacks had more favourable job prospects in Buxton and Chatham compared to their free African-American counterparts in those years, afterwards the numbers in skilled and semi-skilled occupations as compared with unskilled occupations began to decline. In addition, unlike before the Civil War, prospects for African Americans in cities like New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati appeared to be comparable to Canada’s in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

In my recently published book, The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton, I also looked at the census data for Black men and women in Hamilton. I examined the censuses of 1851 through 1881 and 1901 to see what the percentages in skilled/semi-skilled versus unskilled jobs looked like over this period. What I found was that 44 percent and 43 percent respectively of Black males held jobs in the skilled/semi-skilled trades or were independent businessmen in 1851 and 1861 respectively. However, in 1871, the percentage rose to 64 percent, and in 1881, it was 51 percent. Far from being on the decline, the percentage of Black males in skilled/semi-skilled occupations actually increased in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. This is compared with 51 percent of Black men in Chatham in skilled/semi-skilled occupations or entrepreneurs in 1851, 48 percent in 1861, 45 percent in 1871, and 38 percent in 1881, although the latter came from city directory information as opposed to the census and may therefore not be fully reflective of a downward trend.

When compared with workers in major U.S. cities in the mid-nineteenth century, Blacks in Hamilton and Chatham had superior advantages. In New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, barely one-fifth of Black male workers held skilled/semi-skilled jobs. Only in Detroit were Black workers employed in the higher skilled positions at a comparable rate to those in Hamilton and Chatham.

During the nineteenth century, skilled and semi-skilled jobs included such occupations as shoemakers, blacksmiths, those in the building trades such as carpenters, brick makers, stonemasons, and plasterers, not to mention teachers, ministers and self-employed entrepreneurs. Unskilled workers included general labourers, whitewashers, waiters, servants, teamsters and carters. Interestingly, the number one skilled occupation held by Hamilton Black men in 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1901 was that of barber. H. F. Gardiner remembered that when he came to Hamilton in 1870, most of the barbers in town were Black. Some Black barbers owned their own shops, and others worked for or apprenticed with those who did. It is likely also that they worked strictly in the white trade, meaning that they catered only to a white clientele. The relatively high numbers of Black barbers goes some way toward accounting for the large percentage of Black men in the skilled/semi-skilled trades. In 1861, for example, over 10 percent of all Black men with jobs were barbers. In 1871, it was almost 13 percent, and in 1881, the percentage was 14.

Walton also provided anecdotal information pointing to conditions in northern American cities that reflected a mixed bag in terms of both positive and negative developments in the area of civil rights and economic opportunities in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. He suggested that the situation in Canada was likely more comparable to that in the United States than it had been previously. In southwestern Ontario, for example, Blacks formed the Kent County Civil League in 1891 to demand their rights and to protest discrimination in the schools, in the courts, and in public accommodation, indicating that the battle for equality was far from over.

In Hamilton, did the favourable employment statistics hold by the turn of the century? The 1891 census did not ask respondents’ racial origin, so it is not helpful in that regard. However, by 1901, census data show a decline in the percentages in skilled/semi-skilled occupations and as entrepreneurs. In that year, only 32 percent of Black males held skilled or semi-skilled occupations and 63 percent were in unskilled jobs. Ten percent of employed Black males in 1901 were either railway porters or hotel employees such as bellhops and porters. The barbering trade, a huge employer of Black men in the nineteenth century, represented just 6 percent of employed males in 1901.

Statistics for Black females are more complicated. Because women were not considered to be part of the “public sphere,” census enumerators usually did not write in an occupation for them unless they were single or widowed. Therefore, census data tended to mask the numbers of married women with families who worked for wages, in addition to the voluminous work they did in the home. This was particularly true for working-class women in general, and Black women in particular, who were used to taking in washing or doing housework for wages to supplement the family income.

In 1851, 73 percent of Black women had no occupation listed beside their names. Of those who did, 31 percent were employed in skilled/semi-skilled occupations such as seamstress, teacher and cook. Sixty-nine percent worked in unskilled jobs as servants, housekeepers or washerwomen. Interestingly, there was one female stagecoach driver, very much a non-traditional role for a woman. In 1861, 83 percent of Black women were not listed with occupations. Of those with recorded jobs, 27 percent were in skilled/semi-skilled positions and 73 percent were in unskilled positions, including two hucksters. In 1871, 74 reported no job, and 37 percent of those with jobs were in skilled/semi-skilled positions, including one woman who was an innkeeper, and another who was a grocer. Sixty-three percent were in unskilled jobs. In 1881, 60 percent had no job listing, and of those who did, 43 percent were in skilled/semi-skilled positions and 57 percent were unskilled workers, including four “workwomen” and “factory hands.” By 1901, 63 percent reported no occupation, but of those who did, 45 percent were in skilled/semi-skilled occupations and 55 percent were in unskilled occupations.

The statistics for Black women either suggest a trend toward greater involvement with the labour force over time, or a greater inclination on the part of census enumerators to write down occupations for women. For example, in 1901, in addition to 11 (in actual numbers) dressmakers, there were 3 vocalists, 2 music teachers, 1 teacher, 1 pianist and 1 cook. It is difficult to be definitive at this point, but the statistics might also indicate a gradual increase over time in the percentage of women involved in skilled and semi-skilled occupations, from 31 percent in 1851 to 45 percent in 1901. Again, it is impossible to conclude any trends without further investigation.

Obviously, a great deal more work must be done to answer Walton’s basic question of whether Blacks in Canada enjoyed more opportunities over time than their counterparts in northern American cities. All the evidence that I have ever come across points to the fact that Blacks in the early and mid-nineteenth century were able to obtain work very quickly upon arrival in Canada, and that those with skills acquired in slavery and freedom in their American homeland were able to ply their trades in cities and towns across Ontario. And based on Walton’s and my own data, they appear to have retained this advantage over their American compatriots for several decades. Obviously, an extensive breakdown of census data for several cities across time would be helpful in determining the answer to this question, such as updated statistics for Chatham, as well as other cities like Toronto, London, St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Windsor.

What is troubling, however, is the decline in percentages by 1901, and what this indicates for Black Canadian opportunities in the early twentieth century. Much supplementary and anecdotal information supports this position. In her study, The Negro in Canada, economist Ida Greaves summarized the situation for Black workers in the 1920s as compared with the late 1800s. She observed that there had been a noticeable shrinkage in the kinds and varieties of jobs that Blacks filled and a decline in their economic position in the twentieth century.  “Until twenty or thirty years ago there were coloured waiters in the best hotels, and several Negroes carried on businesses of their own. All waiters are now white, and except within the limitations of a Negro community a coloured businessman is very rare.” Although waiters are not considered as skilled workers, the statement is instructive.

In a Hamilton Spectator article dated January 16, 1937, Oliver Holland, son of the Reverend John Holland, summed up the dismal job prospects of African Hamiltonians at that time: “Some people think our girls are fitted only for housework, our men only to be bellhops, porters or labourers ... Of between 400 and 500 negroes in this city, only about half a dozen men are engaged in a profession or business other than labour. With the exception of those employed by our own people, the women who work are all employed at housework.” 1932 Olympic bronze medallist Ray Lewis also complained bitterly of the lack of job prospects in his book Shadow Running: Ray Lewis, Canadian Railway Porter & Olympic Athlete. The Depression only exacerbated an already dismal situation.

The increase in European immigration to Canada over time, and significant events like the end of Reconstruction in the U.S. in 1879 and the “Scramble for Africa” by Europe in the late 1800s, likely contributed to a climate of racism which negatively impacted African Canadians’ mobility into well-paid factory work by 1900 and their ability to maintain the levels of opportunity they had achieved in the mid-1800s. To repeat, much more work needs to be done to definitively answer Walton’s question.  Such work would also help to provide a broader and more nuanced portrait of African Canadians in the nineteenth century, beyond the panting Underground Railroad refugee.

Adrienne Shadd is a historian of African Canadian history. Her book The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton was recently published by Dundurn Press. 


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