Black History Canada

Jackie Robinson

Baseball was a White man’s game for 100 years. That changed forever in 1946 when the Montreal Royals signed Jackie Robinson, the first professional Black baseball player in the major leagues.

Jackie Robinson

The Royals, of the International League, was the AAA farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. President and owner of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, chose Montreal as the test site for the bold move, saying that he thought of Robinson as a ball player first and that it was a point of fairness.

News that the team had signed Robinson was met by a storm of controversy and on tour he was subjected to threats and jeers. Critics expressed doubt, saying Robinson was too muscular to be a good hitter. Robinson played his first game for the Royals on April 18, 1946 in Jersey City, NJ, and played the kind of game that would make him legendary, driving in four runs with four hits, including a three-run homer, and stealing two bases. The Royals won 14-1.

Robinson proved on the field and off that Black players were as deserving of the major leagues as anyone. He helped the Royals win the “Little World Series” in the single year he played for the team, after which he was promoted to the Dodgers. He retired from the game in 1957. Jackie Robinson died in 1972.

Jackie Robinson

The Historica Minute Jackie Robinson dramatizes significant moments in Robinson’s life. Apply what you understand about Robinson as you view the vignette.

The last paragraph of this article focuses on contemporary artistic movements in Canada’s Black community. From The Canadian Encyclopedia.



Mary Ann Shadd

Born to free parents in Wilmington, Delaware, Mary Ann Shadd was the eldest of 13 children. She was educated by Quakers and later taught throughout the northeastern states. Following in the footsteps of her activist parents, who were part of the Underground Railroad, Shadd pursued the path taken by those heading north to freedom in Canada.

Mary Ann Shadd

Settling in Windsor, she wrote educational booklets outlining the advantages of Canada for settlers willing to work and the need for living within one’s means. She set up an integrated school in Windsor that was open to all who could afford to attend (education was not publicly provided at that time). She moved to St. Catharines and then Toronto, where she met and married widower Thomas Cary. To promote information about the successes of Black people living in freedom in Canada, she began the Provincial Freeman newspaper, becoming the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper, although at first she had to have a man stand in for her as the apparent publisher.

Prior to returning to the US, Shadd obtained Canadian citizenship. In 1851, she was the only woman to attend the First Convention of Colored Freemen held outside of the US. Then she worked as a recruitment agent to support the Union side during the American Civil War. Shadd moved to Washington, DC, where she taught, then pursued law studies and became the first Black woman to complete this degree at Howard University. She joined efforts to gain women’s suffrage (the vote) and was herself the first Black woman to vote in a national election.


Mary Ann Shadd
Detailed biography of Black Canadian activist Mary Ann Shadd. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

Viola Desmond

Born and raised in Halifax, Viola Desmond trained as a teacher but soon joined her husband Jack Desmond in a combined barbershop and hairdressing salon, a beauty parlour on Gottingen Street. While expanding her business across the province, Viola went to New Glasgow in 1946.

Viola Desmond

In New Glasgow, Desmond developed car trouble and decided to go to the movies while repairs were made. She bought a ticket, entered the theatre and took a seat on the main floor, unaware that tickets sold to African Canadians in this town were for the balcony and the main floor was reserved solely for White patrons. Theatre staff demanded that she go to the balcony, but she refused, since she could see better from the main floor. The police were summoned immediately and she was dragged out, which injured her hip. She was charged and held overnight in jail; she was not advised of her rights.

Maintaining her dignity, Desmond remained sitting upright, wearing her white gloves (a sign of sophistication and class at the time). The following morning, despite not having done anything wrong, she paid the imposed fine of $20. Besides being fined, she was charged with defrauding the Government of Nova Scotia of the difference in the tax between a ground floor and a balcony seat, which amounted to one cent.

While discussing the incident with the doctor who tended to her, Desmond decided to fight the charges. Clearly, the issue was about her being African Canadian and there being a racist seating policy in place; it was not about tax evasion. In taking the matter to the courts, Viola Desmond’s experience helped to galvanize public opinion locally and internationally, and to raise awareness about the reality of Canadian segregation.
Viola Desmond didn’t set out to make history, but she did
An article about Viola Desmond’s legal battle for racial equality in Nova Scotia. From

John Alleyne

Born in Barbados in 1960, John Alleyne came Toronto with his family in 1965. He trained at the National Ballet School in Toronto. After graduating in 1978, he joined the Stuttgart Ballet, where he began to choreograph balletic works including Phases and his first commissioned work, Weiderkehr (1985). Alleyne returned to Toronto from Germany in 1984 and joined the National Ballet of Canada. He served as resident choreographer 1988-1991 and created several works, including Blue-Eyed Trek and Interrogating Slam.

Image: John Alleyne in The Four Temperaments (1986) (photo by David Street, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada)

Alleyne began choreographing for the British Columbia Ballet in the late 1980s and was appointed the company’s artistic director in 1992. He is credited with raising the profile of Ballet British Columbia through his highly technical and unique interpretations of traditional ballet performance. Works such as Go Slow Walter (1990), Boy Wonder (1997), Orpheus (2003) Scheherazade (2002), Carmina Burana (2004) and Rite of Spring (2005) earned Alleyne exposure on an international scale, including New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, and the San Francisco Ballet’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations—UNited We Dance.

Among John Alleyne’s many honours have been a Dora Mavor Moore Award (1992), a Harry Jerome Award from the Black Business and Professional Association (1993), the Exceptional Achievement Award in the Performing Arts from the Black Historical and Cultural Society of British Columbia (2005) and an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Simon Fraser University (2003).

Nathaniel Dett

Nathaniel Dett was born in Drummondville, Ontario, the child of freedom seekers—those who came to Canada on the Underground Railroad. He began piano lessons in 1901, attending Oberlin Conservatory by 1904. Dett was awarded a Bachelor of Music degree with honors. He studied at Harvard, the American Conservatory (Fontainebleau) and the Eastman School of Music (Rochester) earning a Master of Music degree by 1932.

Image: Nathaniel Dett (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/nlc-8931)

Dett’s choral training at a Black college in Hampton, Virginia, in 1913 seems to have most influenced his musical career, which was marked by many performances at several prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall and the Philadelphia Academy of Music. He taught at the Hampton Institute 1913-32 and became the institute’s Director of Music by 1926. He was the first Black person to gain this position and was the first African-American to be awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music by Oberlin Conservatory. His Hampton Choir performed at the Library of Congress and for American president Herbert Hoover. Among Dett’s compositions for the Hampton Choir are “Listen to the Lambs” (1914) and “Don’t be Weary, Traveler,” the winner of the 1920 Francis Boott Prize at Harvard University.

Carry Me Home: The Story of Nathaniel Dett Chorale
Video clip from the documentary Carry Me Home: The Story & Music of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale.

Addie Aylestock

Image: Addie Aylestock (courtesy Ontario Black History Society/BME Christ Church St. James)

The eldest of eight from a Glen Allen, Ontario family, Addie Aylestock was descended from a long line of those who settled along the Conestogo River. She made her way to the big city of Toronto for greater opportunities when she entered her teens. In order to support herself she took the work that was available to all Black women at the time—domestic work (cook/housekeeper)—to earn her board and keep. Aylestock felt a higher calling and attended the Medical Missionary College with the hope of working in Africa. However, in order to qualify for this ultimate foreign service, she would have needed to find the additional means of first obtaining training in the United States.

She chose to remain in Toronto, furthering her training at Toronto Bible College (TBC) while attending the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BME). She graduated from TBC in 1951, and by 1959 she was a deaconess with the BME. The role of deaconess was a spiritual/community leadership role available to women — there were no higher positions at that time. However, The Doctrine and Discipline of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the church’s rules and regulations, was amended at an annual conference, allowing for the ordination of women. Aylestock became the first ordained woman minister of the BME and the first African-Canadian woman minister in Canada. Since the BME had churches throughout Canada, during her more than 20 years as a minister Aylestock was able to develop or further organize Ontario BME congregations in Fort Erie, Guelph, Owen Sound, Niagara Falls, North Buxton and St Catharines as well as congregations in Montreal and Halifax. She also served as the general secretary of the BME Conference from 1958 to 1982.
Rev. Addie Aylestock
Scroll down the page for a brief bio of the esteemed Rev. Addie Aylestock. From the Human Rights Office, George Brown College.


Calvin Ruck

Image: Calvin Ruck (courtesy School of Social Work, Dalhousie University)

Following World War One, many from the Caribbean were drawn to the area around Sydney, Nova Scotia, for the work offered in the coal mines. Calvin Ruck was born to parents who had emigrated from Barbados, settling in Whitney Pier. Calvin worked at Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation before finding employment in the job that many Black men were welcome to have at the time, that of porter with the Canadian National Railways, from 1945 to 1958.

His experience in trying to buy a home in Westphal near Dartmouth, a White neighbourhood, changed the direction of Ruck’s life. Ruck and his wife had to deal with a petition issued by the residents trying to keep them out. While the family was successful in ultimately buying the home of their dreams in 1954, ongoing incidents of hostility made their day-to-day experience a near nightmare.

To cope with some issues of injustice, African-Canadians often felt it better to try to put up with them rather than confront them since outright challenges could result in being fired or facing increased problems. Maybe his work as a janitor at the air force base in Shearwater encouraged Ruck to reconsider the need to fight. He became a quiet resister, for example refusing to accept that barbershops would not serve his family or the Black community. As he sat in the shop “waiting for service” other patrons would not come in, which affected the barber’s income.

In the 1970s, Ruck enrolled in a social work program and graduated from Dalhousie University. He served on the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission during the 1980s. However, it was his efforts to preserve, tell and commemorate the history of the Black veterans of the First World War—”No. 2 Construction Battalion”—that resulted in his success at having a permanent cairn erected at Pictou, Nova Scotia, to the battalion’s honour in 1993. Ruck was appointed to the Senate in 1998, the third African-Canadian so appointed.
Canada’s Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction
Read an online digitized copy of Calvin Ruck’s book Canada’s Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916-1920. From the Our Roots website.


Maurice Ruddick

On October 23, 1958, a massive “bump”—similar to a small earthquake—collapsed No. 2 colliery of the Cumberland mines in Springhill, Nova Scotia, trapping 174 men 3900 metres underground. Rescuers acted immediately, with little hope there would be many survivors. Slowly they extracted men, alive and dead, from the ground. On the ninth day, they reached the last 7 to be found alive. Among them was Maurice Ruddick, a 46-year-old African Canadian, a slim man with a thin moustache who always pomaded his hair.

When the miners finished a shift, it took an hour to ride to the surface in the trolleys. Ruddick would sing during the trip, blues, jazz or popular songs of the day. Some of the miners joined him to sing “Dem Bones” or “Don’t Be Cruel” or “Bye Bye Love.” As they ascended from the pit, their baritones rumbled up ahead of them, audible to the company men who worked on the surface.

After the mineshaft caved in on them, the 7 men struggled to survive. Ruddick, despite a broken leg, helped his companions keep their spirits up by singing and leading them in song and prayer. He later described the experience in “Springhill Disaster,” the song he wrote about the event.

Ruddick and the other “miracle miners” enjoyed public attention briefly after the disaster. For Ruddick, the only Black in the group, racism dimmed his moment in the spotlight. As you will learn in the accompanying Historica Minute Maurice Ruddick, survivors of the disaster were invited by Georgia’s governor to vacation at a luxurious resort. Upon learning that Ruddick was Black, the governor said that Ruddick would have to be segregated. Ruddick agreed to the governor’s terms so the other miners’ vacation would not be ruined, but he and his family stayed in a trailer apart from his colleagues.

The 1958 mine collapse killed 74 men and ended Springhill’s tenure as a large-scale mining town. The mines were sealed shortly after the Big Bump. Maurice Ruddick died in 1988, all but forgotten for his role during those 9 long days.

Springhill Mine Disaster: Maurice Ruddick
A 1958 photograph of injured miner, Maurice Ruddick, in hospital. From the website for Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management.

Mayann Francis

Image: The Honourable Mayann E. Francis (courtesy Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia)

Mayann Elizabeth Francis was born in Sydney (Whitney Pier), Nova Scotia, one of seven children. Her parents were newcomers to Canada; her father, George, was originally from Cuba and her mother, Thelma, was from Antigua. Francis was brought up in the church, in part due to her father’s role as the archpriest of the African Orthodox Church.

While her neighbourhood was diverse, issues of inequality influenced Francis’ higher education and working life to compel her to try to affect change. Following her graduation from St. Mary’s University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree (1972), she worked for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. She then lived in the United States for 16 years, working and earning a Master of Arts degree in Public Administration from New York University in 1984. She focused on personnel and labour relations issues•issues that affect the quality of people’s lives on a daily basis•and issues that seek rectification through public bodies.

Upon returning to Canada, she became an assistant deputy minister with the Ontario Women’s Directorate before accepting the position of director. She went on to serve as the chief executive officer of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

Francis’ efforts to bring about equality and inclusiveness have been recognized by a Harry Jerome Award from the Black Business and Professional Association, the Multicultural Education Council of Nova Scotia Award, and the Golden Jubilee Medal.

Mayann E. Francis was the first woman ombudsman of Nova Scotia and when she became lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia in September 2006, she became the first Black Nova Scotian and the second Black Canadian (after Lincoln Alexander of Hamilton, Ontario) to hold this position.
CBC: The Honourable Mayann E. Francis
Listen to a CBC interview with The Honourable Mayann E. Francis, lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia.

Deborah Cox

Born July 13, 1974, in Toronto, to parents who hailed from Guyana, South America, Deborah Cox showed musical talent as early as age three. By age 12 she was singing in television commercials. Attending Earl Haig Collegiate by day, she was escorted to talent competitions and auditions by her mom, and in the evening, was performing in nightclubs or writing music. She met Lascelles Stephens, who shared her love of music and supported her interest and wanted her to succeed. Although she repeatedly tried to have her music, heavily influenced by rhythm and blues, recorded under Canadian labels, her attempts failed. Like many before her, she headed to Los Angeles, with her producer and partner, Lascelles to seek her fortune.

Deborah Cox

Within a year, Cox was set to meet a key executive with Arista Records. He was so impressed with her unaccompanied performance that he signed her immediately. While her first album did well enough, her career began to soar with the 1998 release of her single “Nobody’s Supposed to be Here” on her second album One Wish. The song was number one on the charts (Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles and Tracks) for 14 weeks—a record that was not broken for almost 8 years.

Cox is often referred to as Canada’s top R&B artist; she also has international accolades and broad ambition. In addition to her many albums, Cox has contributed her vocal talents to movie soundtracks, which have included Dr. Doolittle, Hotel Rwanda, and Akeelah and the Bee, and acted in films, including Love Come Down and Blood of a Champion. By 2008, Cox had started her own record label, Deco Recording Group. She released “Beautiful U R” to iTunes and, and it rose to the top 10 on the Canadian Radio Chart. In January 2009 it was certified gold for digitally downloaded music. In September 2009, in cooperation with Kelly Price and Tamia, Cox created the pro-social movement the Queen Project, which seeks to empower women through community service projects.
Deborah Cox
A 2009 interview with singer and actor Deborah Cox. From the website


Leonard Braithwaite

Leonard Braithwaite was the first African Canadian in a provincial legislature when he was elected in Ontario in 1963. He served as a Liberal member of the Ontario legislature from 1963 to 1975. In his first speech to the legislature he spoke out against racial segregation in Ontario schools. Soon after, the Ontario government repealed the law that allowed school segregation.

Image: Leonard Braithwaite (courtesy Ontario Black History Society)

Braithwaite was raised in the Kensington Market area of Toronto during the Depression and served in the RCAF in the Second World War. He attended the University of Toronto, where he earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He earned a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School, graduating in 1952, and graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1958, followed by a career in law. He was the first Black lawyer elected as a member of the Governing Council of the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Braithwaite began his political career in 1960 as a member of the Etobicoke board of education. Two years later he was elected as an alderman on the Etobicoke council and ran in the provincial election in 1963, defeating the Progressive Conservative candidate. He was re-elected in 1967 and 1971, serving as the Liberal Party Critic for Labour and Welfare. As a politician he fought for gender equality and the rights of minorities.

In 1998, Braithwaite was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada. He was appointed to the Order of Ontario in 2004.
Leonard Braithwaite
A brief profile of Leonard Braithwaite, the first Black elected to a Canadian provincial legislature. From the website Some Missing Pages.

Robert Sutherland

Robert Sutherland was born in Jamaica and came to Kingston, Ontario, to study at Queen’s University in 1849. While at Queen’s he won 14 academic prizes. In 1852, he graduated with honors in classics and mathematics. He then pursued law and was qualified by 1855. He served as a lawyer in Berlin (now Kitchener) and Walkerton (near Owen Sound) and held a municipal office. Upon his death, Sutherland, who had never married, left his estate of $12,000 to Queen’s University. This bestowment allowed Queen’s to remain separate from the University of Toronto. Sutherland may have been the first Black student and the first Black graduate of Queen’s and the first Black lawyer; he was also clearly one of the most important benefactors of Queen’s University.

Image: County of Bruce Directory, listing Sutherland’s practice.

Who was Robert Sutherland?
A profile of Queen’s alumnus Robert Sutherland. Also includes digitized archival material that relates to Sutherland’s legal career. From the Queen’s University website.

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