‘One-stop shop’ for Hamilton Black history launches Feb. 1


Published January 31, 2022 at 4:15 pm

The Washington Jazz band, a family band that played Southern Ontario dance halls, and included national celebrity Jackie Robinson. Right photo, Hamilton's Ray Lewis was the first Black Canadian-born Olympic medallist, and a school in the city now bears his name. (Workers Arts and Heritage Centre)

Who tells the story matters most. There is no one narrative that captures a people’s experience, but now there is one instrument that aims to take in two-plus centuries of Black history in Hamilton.

At 12 noon on Tuesday (Feb. 1), the Hamilton Black History Council (HBHC) and the Hamilton African-Caribbean Canadian Association (ACCA) will host an online kickoff event for Black History Month. Entitled “A Walk Through Time,” it will include the launch of Hamilton’s Black History Database, a portal created in partnership with the Centre for Community-Engaged Narrative Arts (CCENA) at McMaster University. A website will launch on Feb. 21.

Last year, after consultations between the three groups, CCENA hired Aaron Parry as a researcher for the project. For Parry, a Grimsby native who is a masters’ student at Mac, that meant weeks of long, “very much rabbit hole-oriented” days of searching archives and the Internet, using keywords to unlock Black Hamiltonians’ accompishments and adversities that may have faded from the public sphere.

“The reason ACCA, HBHC and CCENA came together was that they wanted to have, a one-stop shop for Black history in Hamilton,” Parry says. “There are not a lot of resources that collectively show Black history in Hamilton. There’s a huge amount of resources and documents that are sort of scattered across a bunch of different databases, so say, Hamilton Public Library, personal collections, files on the Internet. There was not really one location.

“We often learn more about Black American history before we learn about our own,” adds the 22-year-old academic, who is also a clothing designer. “What was surprising to me was the amount I’ve learned from Black history across North America that is equally present in Hamilton — in terms of music, the arts, health and medicine. It’s just the idea that Hamilton does not have just one story. There’s a history for pretty much every aspect of life — sports history, activist history, you name it.

“It also serves to be accessible for youth, children, student and educators to find out whatever they want to learn.”

The event will be hosted on HBHC’s YouTube channel.

Evelyn Myrie, president of ACCA, says she hopes the Black History Database will serve to “demystify tropes” about Black settlement in Hamilton. Historian Adrienne Shadd, whose 2010 book “The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton,” was one of Parry’s source material, has traced that settlement to the late 1700s.

“Sometimes with our history, the only narrative is the Underground Railroad,” Myrie says. “It’s more complex than that. The challenges we’ve had, the triumphs we’ve had — this resource will help fill some of that story. There’s also a long-held perception that the Black presence in Hamilton is more recent. But it predates the Caribbean migration to Hamilton in the late 1950s,’60s,’70s and ’80s. There was a strong Black community that thrived and faced barriers and broke barriers down.

“The materials are important,” Myrie adds. “Some of these stories were captured in the mainstream press, like the (Hamilton) Spectator, which is kind of cool, that’s refreshing.

“However, perspective matters and who tells the story is important. To me, it (the Hamilton Black History Database) demonstrates to the next generation the resilience of a people. It shows where racism reared its ugly head and a community organized and fought against it. It is gratifying. Whatever we have today, is because our predecessors. We are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us.”

In his high school days, Parry wrote a proposal for a Black history course to be part of the Niagara Catholic School Board curriculum. He said the project enlightened him about historical firsts outside his frame of reference, and he hopes it does the same in all corners of the city.

The readily recalled names, of course, include Lincoln Alexander, the first Black federal cabinet minister, who started his law practice in Hamilton and now has a parkway named after him. Both the first Canadian-born Black Olympic medallist, Ray Lewis, and pro football’s first Black quarterback, Bernie Custis, had schools named after them in the city. Both schools opened shortly after the two sports figures’ respective deaths.

“The beauty of doing this is learning that there’s so much more than what you have been told and so much more outside of your bubble that relates to your community,” says Parry, who noted that that COVID-19 led to the choice to develop a website, since that was the domain where he performed research.

The Black History Database also turned up everyday experiences that are relatable in 2022. That was the case one vignette  thatjumped out at Daniel Coleman, who is co-director of CCENA and an English literature professor at McMaster.

“When I was reading up on Black history in Hamilton, there were things like a meeting of 200 Black parents in Ancaster in 1823, concerned about their children’s access to education in the school system here,” says Coleman, who helms CCENA alongside fellow professor Lorraine York. “Hamilton wasn’t even a city yet. If you dig through these archives, there’s so many things that show how influential the Black community has been in Hamilton since forever.

Over the last five years, CCENA has supported about 30 groups with similar projects.

“We had interest in this in Hamilton,” Coleman says. “There was a spark in the public domain with Black Lives Matter and policing concerns. We were thinking collectively, the more people can know about Hamilton Black history, the better we can realize these things have been circulating for a long time.”

When it comes online, the Hamilton Black History Database will also include a search engine and Google Forms. The latter will allow readers to review materials and suggest additions.

“It’ll be open to anyone who wants to make contributions,” Parry says.

For all the work that has gone into this, Myrie sees Tuesday’s event the database launch as the beginning of something much bigger.

“We know that there’s much more to be done,” she says. “Where do normalize Black people and their contribution to Canada? It’s one small step, but there are so many more steps with where we want to go with normalizing Blackness in Canada. I’m happy that it’s finally happening.”

Link: Hamilton Black History Council on YouTube.

(Cover photos via communitystories.ca/Workers Arts and Heritage Centre).

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