The City of Toronto was an important destination for African American immigrants before the American Civil War. Many were formerly enslaved women, men and children who risked everything to come to Canada in search of freedom. Some used the dangerous clandestine routes known as the Underground Railroad, but a great many also came without assistance, or with only the chance help of sympathetic strangers. Others were free people who sought new lives for themselves and their families in a place where racial discrimination, while still very present, was at least not supported by the laws of British North America.
Known as the “Town of York” until it was incorporated in 1834, Toronto regained the centuries-old name given the area by First Nations Peoples when it became a city. It was located on a protected harbour on the north shore of Lake Ontario, directly across the water from a number of American ports. It was a hub of transportation and commerce, especially to Great Lakes shipping and, after 1855, it became a major railroad centre as well. Toronto was a busy place and always suffered from a shortage of workers, so there were good employment and business opportunities available for newcomers.
Toronto’s African Canadian community included descendants of people who had been enslaved during the French and British colonial eras. In fact, slavery had been legal in Upper Canada until the British abolished it throughout the Empire in 1833, although most people were living as free wage-earners by about the time of the War of 1812. There were also a few Black Loyalists who had fought for the British in the American Revolution, and soldiers and their families who had served in the War of 1812 or in regular British army units stationed at Fort York. But by the middle of the 19th century, the vast majority were African Americans who had come to Toronto to create new lives for themselves and their families.
Unlike the rest of what is now Ontario, Toronto’s schools, churches, the university and the Normal School (teachers’ college) were never segregated. A number of African Canadian churches were founded as well, and the church was very important in 19th century Black Toronto. It served not only religious purposes, but were also centres where children and adults learned to read. They were self-help and benevolent associations, and held a wide variety of intellectual and social activities. Churches of different denominations were located mainly east and west of Yonge Street, along Queen and Richmond Streets and along what is now Chestnut Street.
The largest concentration of African Canadians lived near St. Lawrence Market and up Church Street in the early period. By the 1830’s, the district that received the majority of newcomers was Macaulaytown, or St. John’s Ward. This was an area of narrow streets and small cottages and shops located between University and Bay Street, north of Queen. There grew up a vibrant community comprising by 1860 over 1000 people.