This 22-year-old is out to give Black stories 'more light' with launch of history database in Hamilton

A 22-year-old researcher has developed a one-stop-shop for Black history in Hamilton. The new database project will be introduced to the community Tuesday to help kick off Black History Month.

‘It is all of our stories and they're continuing to be told,’ researcher Aaron Parry says

Aaron Parry's research has helped develop a one-stop-shop for Black history in Hamilton. (Christian Braun)

Ever since he was a little kid, Aaron Parry "was extremely interested in Black history." 

In fact, the 22-year-old McMaster University graduate says he "was always talking to my aunties about our history and everything."

Parry says it was "a dream come true" when he was approached last year — while he was still a student at McMaster — about a research opportunity, focusing on Black history related to Hamilton, Ont. The research would be instrumental for a new joint project by the Afro-Canadian Caribbean Association of Hamilton (ACCA) and the Hamilton Black History Council, with funding provided by the Hamilton-based Centre for Community Engaged Narrative Arts.

Fast forward to this month and Parry's research has led to a one-stop-shop for Black history in Hamilton. The project, called the Hamilton Black History Database, is being introduced to the community Tuesday to help kick off Black History Month, with a virtual event aptly named A Walk Through Time.

"Regardless of how long your family or your community has been in Hamilton, it is all of our stories and they're continuing to be told," Parry told CBC Hamilton, ahead of the event. 

"As someone who is still kind of a youth, I think that it's our responsibility to carry those stories. Sometimes people in my age group might forget to honour the people that have come before us … but I think that it's very important to honour... the people who are still here and honour our ancestors in any way and honour the history of our community," he said. 

It really helps to debunk any perceptions that the Black community is new to Hamilton.- Evelyn Myrie, president of the Afro-Canadian Caribbean Association

Evelyn Myrie, president of the ACCA, said the project is a good example of allyship, and will make local Black history more accessible.

The database will be virtual and the Hamilton Black History Council will launch it officially on Feb. 21, sharing the website then via social media. Tuesday's event — running between 12 and 1 p.m. online — offers a sneak peek. 

"There has been a big concern for many years and continues to be around the access to information on Black history, so this allows us to have accessible information about the Black community in Hamilton over a long period of time," Myrie told CBC.

"It really helps to debunk any perceptions that the Black community is new to Hamilton, so to speak. It really puts Black history in Hamilton at your fingertips."

An image from 1947 of a local women's basketball team — one of many images accessible through the new Hamilton Black History Database. (Submitted by Workers Arts and Heritage Centre/Hamilton Black History Council)

A speech from the 1800s

One of the earliest pieces of Hamilton's Black history Parry found during his research was a speech written by Paola Brown to be delivered at Hamilton City Hall in the 1800s.

According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Brown was born in Pennsylvania around 1807. He had run away after being enslaved at a southern plantation.

Brown was documented as being in Upper Canada by late 1828 — a "leader of scattered Black families between Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) and Dundas." He would settle in Hamilton, and "assumed a leadership role" there during the 1830s, when the city "attracted a small Black community." 

Songbook from the early 1900s

Although Parry was intrigued by Brown's story, it was something else that stood out to him the most from his research for the database.

"I think that the thing that I kept referencing a lot to the people I was working with and to anyone who asked me about the project was a songbook that I found from the early 1900s," Parry said.

"I didn't really know about this until I was doing the research, but there was a singing group in Hamilton known as the Canadian Jubilee Singers, and it's essentially a spin-off of the Jubilee Singers from the [United] States, which is essentially like a travelling group [doing] different songs that are very religious focused." he said.

An image of the Washington Jazz Band, a family band which performed in the 1930s in Southern Ontario dance halls and included national celebrity Jackie Washington. (Submitted by Aaron Parry)

"I actually found the songbook that was from the 1920s or 30s that has all of the notes and the lyrics for the songs that they would actually go around on tour and sing," Parry added.

According to Parry, it stood out to him because it's "actual proof of our presence and our stories." 

"I was extremely moved by it because my family is very much in touch with music. My brother is an audio engineer and he's a musician, and we grew up in a very musical household," Parry said. 

"It's just another one of our stories that should be given more light, I think, and I just thought it was very cool, and as soon as I saw it, I saw the opportunity that something like this could inspire somebody else who is musical to actually go forward or research this more."

It 'meant a lot for me emotionally'

Parry, who is now a youth development program coordinator with ACCA, says he "felt very lucky" throughout the entire process of doing the research and developing the database.

"It also meant a lot for me emotionally. Black history are our stories, it's all of us," Parry says. 

Parry hopes that by doing the research and developing the tool, it will encourage other Black youth to see that they can have jobs related to Black history and also serves to uplift the Black community in Hamilton. 

Terri Bedminster, Hamilton Black History Council board member, says the database is very timely and easy to navigate. It launches officially on Feb. 21. (Submitted by Terri Bedminster)

Terri Bedminster, Hamilton Black History Council board member, says the digital tool is very timely and easy to navigate.

"This database is pretty cool," Bedminster told CBC Hamilton. "It's everything from videos to newspaper articles to links or website links. Everything relating to Black history in Hamilton, it's there, and it's catalogued in such a way that you can search it.

"It's set up in chronological order. It's based on different timelines and different periods in Black history, from early Black settlement and enslavement to more of the current affairs of the city." 

Also documented in the database is the history of Stewart Memorial Church and the role it played during the Underground Railroad era, housing free African-Americans at the time, she says. 

Interest from school boards, educators 

Bedminster says while over time people have learned to associate history with old books and old pictures and things that are harder to get a hold of, this is the digital age. 

"So having that information translated to a database that's online and electronic and accessible just seems to make sense as well," she says.

St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal was built in Hamilton in the 1900s. (Workers Arts and Heritage Centre Hamilton)

"It's not necessarily replacing things... it's adding to the accessibility component of history," she added.

Bedminster says they've already heard from school boards, students and educators that the database would serve to support a lot of their learning and their work that they do in education.

"That for us is a win," she says.

Myrie says as a result of the database, schools, city agencies, and individual Hamiltonians will be more enlightened about the contributions the Black community has made to the city over the years, as well as today.

Launching the database is just the beginning, and the site will continue to be updated, added Bedminster, making it an important new resource for the community. 

"This is Hamilton's history." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Desmond Brown

Web Writer / Editor

Desmond joined CBC News in October 2017. He previously worked with The Associated Press, Caribbean Media Corporation and Inter Press Service. You can reach him at: desmond.brown@cbc.ca.