Arts·Point of View

How one Google search proved we need to pay attention to Canada's black history more than ever

Welcome to Blackhurst celebrates the often ignored work and art of black people in Toronto — and there's a powerful reason why we need this show now.

Welcome to Blackhurst recognizes the often ignored history of a Toronto neighbourhood

A group of men pose outside of the offices of Contrast newspaper in 1976. Contrast served the black and Caribbean population of Toronto and was a source of inspiration for curator Chinedu Ukabam. (Claudio Lewis)

On Wednesday afternoon, I Googled the name "Stanley Grizzle."

I was researching Welcome to Blackhurst Street, an exhibition that celebrates the little-known black history of Toronto's Bathurst and Bloor neighbourhood. The event's curator, Chinedu Ukabam, had mentioned his name.

The Ontario Black History Society posted an obituary in memory of Stanley Grizzle late Wednesday. A recipient of the Order of Canada, he died this month at age 97. (Submitted by Kathy Grant)

I've never met Mr. Grizzle, but I've been introduced to the magnitude of his legacy. As someone who moved to Canada as a child, his work in immigration is literally the reason why I am able to be here right now.

Grizzle, a recipient of the Order of Canada, was a veteran of the Second World War. He was a labour-union activist and organized black railway porters under the banner of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He challenged federal immigration policies toward Caribbean immigrants and was later appointed a citizenship court judge by Pierre Trudeau. It's rumoured he even recorded a jazz album.

And as I read all those achievements on his Wikipedia page, I stopped startled. It listed the date of his death: November 12, 2016.

That was just four days earlier. I wondered how I had missed the articles, the hashtags, the memorials that must have been created in the wake of this news. Canada had lost one of its heroes.

When you tear things down and build things up, sometimes what's lost is the history in all that.- Chinedu Ukabam, curator of Welcome to Blackhurst

I began searching through Google and Twitter, but I found nothing but a link to a funeral home.

I called Miguel San Vicente, the co-owner of A Different Booklist, a community bookstore at Bathurst and Bloor that Grizzle had regularly frequented while he was still mobile and living in the neighbourhood. I called Dr. Mark Campbell, a professor who had spoken to me enthusiastically about his legacy, offering to introduce us — an idea that was never realized. I called Ukabam, who had inspired me to start researching in the first place.

The Welcome to Blackhurst exhibition runs to Nov. 27 at Markham House in Toronto. (Courtesy of Chinedu Ukabam)

It quickly became clear why I hadn't seen any news — any tributes, any memorials. No one knew that Grizzle was gone. Later that day, the Ontario Black History Society posted an obituary on Facebook.

The deep irony of this situation has been weighing on me since.

Welcome to Blackhurst is all about recognizing the often ignored work and art of black people in Toronto. We lost a key figure in Canadian history last week — and yet the news went unreported. The sadness of this moment is overwhelming to me, but it also emphasizes the importance of the exhibition.

Bathurst and Bloor has a rich history of black presence. One of the first black settlers in the community was Deborah Brown, who lived at 691 Markham St. She was a fugitive slave who escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad with her husband.

The neighbourhood became home to numerous black-owned businesses: grocery stores, beauty and barber shops, bookstores, dentist offices and newspaper headquarters. It also became the home of many black artists and activists.

The intersection will be facing a massive redevelopment next year when the iconic Honest Ed's department store is demolished for a new residential and commercial development.

"So many services were not available for black people in Toronto, which meant people had to create their own businesses. This area was one of the first hubs where that happened," says curator Chinedu Ukabam.

"When you tear things down and build things up, sometimes what's lost is the history in all that," says Ukabam.

As someone who prides himself on his study and knowledge of black history, the curator admits he was surprised by how much he did not know about the neighbourhood.

One of the most intriguing discoveries was the work of Contrast Newspaper. Housed in offices at Bathurst and Lennox, Contrast was one of the first black newspapers in Toronto and is a critical thread in the history of black writing in Toronto. Created by Al Hamilton, Contrast became a launching pad for numerous black journalists, novelists, poets and screenwriters — people like Jojo Chintoh, Cecil Foster, Royson James, Roger McTair, Norman Otis Richmond and Austin Clarke.

While scouring the archives of Contrast, Ukabam was struck by the headlines he found.

"They were written 30-40 years ago but they look like they were written today. [...] What the political climate was, it feels like the issues of today — things like police brutality. I wonder how much is being lost generationally by not having it connected to each other. How many lessons are being lost?"

Ukabam took those headlines and pasted them on the steps leading into the exhibit.

Inside sits a map of the neighbourhood pinned with the addresses of black businesses and residences. Visitors are welcome to add more pins to the project.

A collage of framed photographs chronicles some of the people who lived and worked in the neighbourhood such as Toronto's first black postman, Albert Jackson, former cabinet minister Zanana Akande, curator and dentist Dr. Kenneth Montague — and Judge Stanley Grizzle.

There is a shrine to Austin Clarke, the author who not only lived in the neighbourhood but also immortalized its black presence in his writing.

A bulletin board littered with handwritten anecdotes is entitled "People, Spaces and Places." It invites guests to add written notes, meditations, photographs and small objects to the library catalogue.

At the opening reception, Ukabam's hope of bridging generations was realized.

"[It was] a really beautiful thing because it had people who were 85 years old in a room with people who are 18."

In one section of the Welcome to Blackhurst exhibition, guests are invited to add their memories of the Bloor and Bathurst neighbourhood. (Courtesy of Chinedu Ukabam)

Toronto is a city with a short memory and Canada is a country that is selective in the history it chooses to highlight and celebrate. Many are pushing for the creation of more plaques, street signs and statues — the signifiers of national heritage — to commemorate those who lived, worked and built the Bathurst and Bloor neighbourhood.

Before he passed away, Stanley Grizzle donated all of his documents to the National Archives of Canada. A park has been named after him and he has been awarded numerous times for his work. And yet, many people learned of his death days after it occurred — in some cases, because of the phone calls I made because of an accidental online discovery. It forces me to consider that perhaps we need new and deeper ways of honouring, remembering and paying tribute to those who have laid the foundation for so many.

Before Ukabam opened Welcome to Blackhurst Street, he asked Grizzle if he would like to contribute to the exhibition's board of memories.

He sent one word back: "Alive."

Welcome to Blackhurst Street. To Dec. 11 at Markham House, Toronto.


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