Ottawa street renamed in honour of former slave who became famed horse trainer

A section of Clarence Street in Lowertown has been renamed in honour of former Kentucky slave Paul Barber, who settled in Ottawa around 1885 and became a well-respected horse trainer for the local police department.

"He probably felt welcome here, that's why he stayed here," says grandson

A section of Clarence St. has been renamed Barber St. in honour of Paul Barber, a former American slave who settled in Ottawa. (CBC)

Part of a street in Lowertown has been renamed to honour a man who overcame slavery and eventually made Ottawa his home as a renowned horse trainer.

From now on, a section of Clarence Street that runs east of Beausoleil Drive will be called Barber Street in tribute to Paul Barber, a former Kentucky slave who was among the first African-Americans to become a permanent resident in Ottawa.

A faded photo of Paul Barber, his wife Elizabeth, and five children, circa 1910. The Barbers lived in Ottawa's Lowertown, and their interracial family was believed to be one of the first in the city. (Barber family)
Born into slavery, he was sold to the Barber family in 1853 when he was four years old, and assumed the name of his owners. The Barbers were well-known horse breeders in Kentucky, and he learned how to ride, train, and care for the animals.

He also helped sell the family's horses, and his sales trips to Canada led him to believe that he could live and raise a family in the northern country, according to his descendants. After he became a free man, he eventually made his way to Ottawa in 1885.

'He probably felt welcome here'

"It wasn't for the weather, but he probably felt welcome here, that's why he stayed here," said Barber's grandson, Tom Barber, at Monday's renaming ceremony.

"He saw that other black families fit well into the community; there was no problems for them. They were hard working people, religious people, and that's how they got respect for who they were and what they had to offer," Barber said.

Tom Barber says renaming the street is symbolic of the fair treatment his grandfather received when he moved to Ottawa. (Alan Neal)
Paul Barber became a busy, well-regarded horseman in Ottawa, training horses for parliamentarians, the Ottawa Horseman's Club, and the City of Ottawa, which hired him to train horses for its police force.

He married Elizabeth Brown in 1895, and they raised five children in the Clarence Street area. 

"It really is important and appropriate that we name this street Barber Street," said his grandson, "because Paul Barber Jr. had a house here, and it was a meeting place for the family. My mother and father met on Clarence Street."

Generations of the Barber family who have made their lives in Ottawa were on hand for Monday's renaming ceremony. Tom Barber believes his grandfather's positive experience settling in the city as a black man helped his family create a legacy here.

"This whole thing is symbolic of the early treatment of black people in the city," he said. "The courts treated black people fairly, the police treated black people fairly."

A studio portrait of Paul Barber and his daughter. (A.G.Pittaway)