Q&A

The untold story of how Hamilton's black community was built

Much of the history of Hamilton's black community is irrevocably linked to the Underground Railroad and freed slaves — but there's much more to the story than just that, says historian and author Adrienne Shadd.

'If you want to view people as being only downtrodden and uneducated ... it's not helpful,' author says

Author and historian Adrienne Shadd says that while much focus is placed on the narrative of the "poor and downtrodden" slave running to Hamilton in the 1800s, there's a lot more to the community's history than that. (Adrienne Shadd)

Much of the history of Hamilton's black community is irrevocably linked to the Underground Railroad and freed slaves — but there's much more to the story than just that, says historian and author Adrienne Shadd.

Shadd, the author of Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton, spoke with CBC News during Black History Month to talk about historical stereotypes linked to the city's black community, and how they can be harmful.

Q: What doesn't the general public know about the history of Hamilton's black community?

A: I always think that there's a general perception that blacks only came during the Underground Railroad — that they were escaping slavery directly, and they were coming with nothing.

I mean, a lot of people did come with nothing, but that wasn't the entire story. There's a lot of diversity among the people who came.

Some people came much earlier, during the latter part of the 1700s. There is also a history of slavery in the area that people probably don't know about.

I try to shatter the typical stereotype, and talk about families who were not slaves when they came here, they were maybe escaping general racism. There were families — for example, the Mossell family — that came because their children were not able to go to schools in Baltimore, and that's why they came to Hamilton, so the children could attend public school.

The father, Adam Mossell, was a person who made bricks and built homes and buildings of all kinds, and he actually established a brick factory. His children went on to do very well. The most famous person from the family was Nathan Mossell, who became a celebrated doctor. He established a hospital in Philadelphia that blacks went to, [and] he was part of the Niagara movement that established the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) — it's just an example of a family that really did very well.

That's not the typical type of story that you hear when you hear about blacks coming to Canada during that period.

Q: Why do you think that narrative persists in history more than the stories of families that came here and were successful?

A: I think that once a story is rooted, it's really difficult to uproot it. People, for some reason, want to hang on this narrative. A lot of families and individuals did come directly out of slavery, but some people had been living in freedom for many years, and they were pushed here because of the fugitive slave law that was passed in 1850.

It's difficult to say why people want to hang on to the stereotypes.

Q: Do you think those stereotypes can be harmful?

A: I think that they can be harmful to a certain extent, because people have the wrong ideas. They have this idea of a people being a certain way, when actually diversity defines how people are, no matter who they are.

There's a diversity of stories, and if you want to view people as being only downtrodden and uneducated and poor, at some point, it's not helpful.

They contributed a lot more than people might want to think. They helped to build the city of Hamilton, and they contributed in many kinds of occupations.

There were people in the building trades who built some of the houses and buildings that still stand today, there were teachers and ministers — just all kinds of people who contributed. People who owned inns and restaurants, all kinds of things people did that you might not typically think of black people doing when they've escaped slavery or when they've come during that period.

Q: So how integral was that community in building Hamilton as a city?

A: I think it was very integral. In Hamilton, the population wasn't that large, but it was significant, especially during the mid 1800s. There was a journalist who came to Hamilton in 1870, and he said that when he came, all of the barbers in Hamilton were black.

You can imagine that all the barbers in town are black, that's something that you don't normally think of when you think of that time period in Hamilton and who was doing what. A lot of these barbers owned their own shops, they apprenticed barbers who were not black at times — so it's just really interesting to think about it that way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.