City hall exhibit uncovers Toronto’s early Black history

In honour of Black History Month, the City of Toronto and Infrastructure Ontario have revealed a new exhibit in the city hall rotunda with artifacts discovered during the construction of the new Toronto courthouse.

“Toronto’s Black community has deep roots in the city’s history and we are pleased to help unearth some of these stories and share new insight with this important display,” said Mayor John Tory. “Black History Month is a time to celebrate the history and culture of Toronto’s Black residents. I hope all Torontonians will take this opportunity to visit City Hall and learn more about Toronto’s rich and diverse past.”

The first exhibit features artifacts significant to Toronto’s Black history, including remnants of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded by five African-Americans who fled slavery and came to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

In 2015, Infrastructure Ontario, on behalf of the Ministry of the Attorney General, led a complex excavation and archeological dig of a new Toronto courthouse site just steps from City Hall. The excavation revealed tens of thousands of artifacts from the neighbourhood known as St. John’s Ward, or the Ward. As one of Toronto’s earliest immigrant and migrant settlements, the Ward in the 19th century was a place of refuge for Black settlers, including fugitive slaves and freed persons, as well as Irish, Italian, Jewish and later Chinese immigrants.

“The archeological work, and the process of interpreting the findings, continues to be very exciting for all of us at Infrastructure Ontario,” said Ehren Cory, Divisional President at Infrastructure Ontario. “This unique collaboration and exhibit with the City of Toronto is an early step in our work to commemorate the site’s history. We are confident the heritage of this site will be an important part of Toronto’s history long after the new courthouse’s doors open.”

The City of Toronto will be showcasing a rotating display of these artifacts in the City Hall rotunda for the next several years to help share the story of Toronto’s multicultural past.

The exhibit was unveiled this evening during a Black History Month reception at City Hall that included members from the Ontario Black History Society, former Member of Parliament Jean Augustine, Governor General Award-winning author and historian Karolyn Smardz Frost, and poet Nadine Williams.

— Erin McGuey