Search for "black history"

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Black History in Canada until 1900

Black people have lived in Canada since the beginnings of transatlantic settlement. Although historically very few arrived directly from their ancestral homeland in Africa, the term "African Canadian" is used to identify all descendants of Africa regardless of their place of birth. “Black Canadian” is also used as a more general term. The earliest arrivals were enslaved people brought from New England or the West Indies. Between 1763 and 1900, most Black migrants to Canada were fleeing enslavement in the US. (See also Black Enslavement in Canada.)

See also Black History in Canada: 1900–1960 and Black History in Canada: 1960 to Present.

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Black Fur Traders in Canada

The role of Black people within the history of the fur trade is rarely considered. Black people were rarely in a position to write their own stories, so often those stories went untold. This owes to a complex set of factors including racism and limited access to literacy. Black people are also not the focus of many historical documents. However, historians have identified several Black fur traders working in different roles, and even an entire family of Black fur traders who left their mark on history.

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Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, née Araminta "Minty" Ross, abolitionist, “conductor” of the Underground Railroad (born c. 1820 in Dorchester County, Maryland; died 10 March 1913 in Auburn, New York). Tubman escaped from enslavement in the southern United States and went on to become a leading abolitionist before the American Civil War. She led numerous enslaved persons to freedom in the “free” Northern states and Canada through the Underground Railroad — a secret network of routes and safe houses that helped people escape enslavement.

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Ray Lewis

Raymond Gray (“Rapid Ray”) Lewis, CM, sprinter (born 8 October 1910 in Hamilton, ON; died 14 November 2003 in Hamilton, ON). Ray Lewis was the first Canadian-born Black athlete to earn an Olympic medal. He won a bronze medal in the 4 x 400 m relay at the 1932 Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles. He was also part of the Canadian team that won the silver medal in the 4 x 400 m event at the 1934 British Empire Games in London, England. Lewis was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2000.

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Portia White

Portia May White, contralto, teacher (born 24 June 1911 in Truro, NS; died 13 February 1968 in Toronto, ON). Portia White was the first Black Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim. She was considered one of the best classical singers of the 20th century. Her voice was described by one critic as “a gift from heaven.” She was often compared to the celebrated African American contralto Marian Anderson. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust was established in 1944 specifically to enable White to concentrate on her professional career. She was named a “person of national historic significance” by the Government of Canada in 1995.

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Mifflin Gibbs

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, politician, judge, diplomat, banker, entrepreneur (born 17 April 1823 in Philadelphia, PA; died 11 July 1915, in Little Rock, AR). Gibbs was a notable figure in both American and Canadian history. In just over a decade in colonial British Columbia, he prospered in business, advocated for the Black community, served as an elected official and helped guide British Columbia into Confederation. Gibbs was the first Black person elected to public office in what is now British Columbia.

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John Ware

John Ware, cowboy, rancher (born c. 1845–50 in the United States; died 11 September 1905 near Brooks, AB). John Ware is legendary in the history of Alberta for his strength and horsemanship. Born enslaved, he became a successful rancher who settled near Calgary and Brooks. He was widely admired as one of the best cowboys in the West, even at a time of widespread anti-Black racism and discrimination.

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Mary Ann Shadd

Mary Ann Camberton Shadd Cary, educator, publisher, abolitionist (born 9 October 1823 in Wilmington, Delaware; died 5 June 1893 in Washington, DC). Mary Ann Shadd was the first Black female newspaper publisher in Canada. Shadd founded and edited The Provincial Freeman. She also established a racially integrated school for Black refugees in Windsor, Canada West. She played an important role in giving Black people a voice and advocating for women’s rights. In 1994, Shadd was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada.

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Joseph Lewis

Joseph Lewis, alias Levi Johnston, also Lewes and Louis, fur trader (born c. 1772–73 in Manchester, New Hampshire; died 1820 in Saskatchewan District). Joseph Lewis was a Black fur trader, originally from the United States, who participated in the fur industry’s early expansion into the Canadian Northwest in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He is one of very few Black people involved in the fur trade whose name was documented in existing texts. Joseph Lewis is further notable for being the first Black person in present-day Saskatchewan, as well as, in all likelihood, Alberta.

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Black Hawk

Black Hawk (Black Sparrow Hawk, Makataimeshekiakiak), Sauk War Chief (b at Saukenuk, near Rock Island, Ill, 1767; d near Des Moines, Iowa, 3 Oct 1838).

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Jamaican Maroons in Nova Scotia

The ancestors of the Maroons of Jamaica were enslaved Africans who had been brought there by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, and later by the British (who captured Jamaica from Spain in 1655), to work its lucrative sugar plantations. The word maroon was widely used to describe a runaway, and maroonage to denote the act and action of escaping enslavement, whether temporarily or permanently. After a series of wars with the colonial government in Jamaica, one group of Maroons was deported to Nova Scotia in 1796. While Maroon communities existed in Nova Scotia for only four years before they were sent to Sierra Leone, their legacy in Canada endures.

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George Dixon

George Dixon, boxer (born 29 July 1870 in Africville, NS; died 6 January 1908 in New York, New York). George Dixon was the first Black world champion in boxing history and the first Canadian to ever win a world championship. Despite his small stature (5 feet 3.5 inches and between 87 and 115 pounds), Dixon amassed several notable accomplishments across a 20-year career and was the first boxer to win championships in multiple weight classes — bantamweight (1890) and featherweight (1891–96; 1897; 1898–1900). A cerebral fighter known as a “pioneer of scientific boxing,” he is credited with inventing various fundamental training techniques, including shadowboxing and the use of the heavy bag. As a dominant Black fighter in the post-Civil War United States, Dixon was subjected to fierce racism. He died in poverty from alcoholism at the age of 37. He was an inaugural inductee into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, and was also named to The Ring Magazine Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Samuel Black

Samuel Black, fur trader, explorer (b at Pitsligo, Scot 3 May 1780; d at Kamloops, New Caledonia [BC] 8 Feb 1841). He joined the XY Co, which was absorbed by the NORTH WEST CO in 1804.

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William Peyton Hubbard

William Peyton Hubbard, politician, inventor, baker, coachman (born 27 January 1842 in Toronto, ON; died 30 April 1935 in Toronto). Hubbard was Toronto’s first Black elected official, serving as alderman (1894–1903, 1913) and controller (1898–1908), and as acting mayor periodically. A democratic reformer, he campaigned to make the city’s powerful Board of Control an elected body. Hubbard was also a leading figure in the push for public ownership of hydroelectric power, contributing to the establishment of the Toronto Hydro-Electric System.

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Richard Pierpoint

Richard Pierpoint (also Pawpine, Parepoint; Captain Pierpoint, Captain Dick; Black Dick), loyalist, soldier, community leader, storyteller (born c. 1744 in Bondu [now Senegal]; died c. 1838, near present-day Fergus, ON). Pierpoint was an early leader in Canada’s Black community. Taken from West Africa as a teenager and sold into slavery, Pierpoint regained his freedom during the American Revolution. He settled in Niagara, Upper Canada, and attempted to live communally with other Black Canadians. In the War of 1812, he petitioned for an all-Black unit to fight for the British and fought with the Coloured Corps.

Editorial

Editorial: The Arrival of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia

“Freedom and a Farm.” The promise was exciting to the thousands of African Americans, most seeking to escape enslavement, who fought in British regiments during the American Revolutionary War (1775–83). Following the war, they joined tens of thousands of Loyalists — American refugees who had sided with the British. Between 80,000 and 100,000 Loyalists eventually fled the United States. About half came to British North America. The main waves arrived in 1783 and 1784. The territory that now includes the Maritime provinces became home to more than 30,000 Loyalists. Most of coastal Nova Scotia received Loyalist settlers, as did Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island (then called St. John’s Island).

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Ted King

Theodore “Ted” Stanley King, civil rights activist, real estate broker, accountant, railway porter (born 14 July 1925 in Calgary; died 7 July 2001 in Surrey, BC). Ted King was the president of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People from 1958 to 1961, where he advocated for the rights of Black Canadians. In 1959, King launched a legal challenge against a Calgary motel’s discriminatory policy, decades before human rights protections existed throughout Canada. The case made it to the Alberta Supreme Court. Though it was not successful, King’s case exposed legal loopholes innkeepers exploited in order to deny lodging to Black patrons.

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Mathieu Da Costa

Mathieu Da Costa (depending on the language of the documents that mention his name, also known as “Mateus Da Costa,” “Mathieu de Coste,” “Matheus de Cost” and “een Swart genamd Matheu”), interpreter (dates and places of birth and death unknown). Da Costa is one of the most fascinating and elusive figures in the early history of Canada. Historians consider him the first Black person known to have visited Canada, probably in the company of Pierre Dugua de Mons and Samuel de Champlain. But many aspects of his life remain unclear or unknown.

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Delos Davis

Delos Rogest Davis, KC, teacher and lawyer (born 4 August 1846 in Maryland, died 13 April 1915 in Anderdon Township, ON). Davis was the second Black lawyer in Canada and the first Black person appointed to the King’s Counsel in all of the British Empire.