This coming Saturday, as part of Black History Month, there is a virtual presentation through the History Symposium featuring Natasha Henry, President of the Ontario Black History Society, and entitled “Hidden in Plain View”:

The concept of hidden history has long fascinated and frustrated me in equal measure, but even more so in our attempts to record and explore early Black history in our community.

Searching through early census records brings some names to fore, but little else. Names, of course, can be an important starting place in our research, but all too often it leaves us wanting more. But perhaps more importantly, it leaves us wondering why more has not been recorded or preserved by previous generations and by predecessors in the realms of informational preservation and written history.

From the 1851 census, who were John and Catherine Thomas, and their children May and George? What evidence have they left behind to tell of their life and times? Ten years later, in 1861, they do not appear to be living in historic Mississauga any longer. Where did they go, and why?

Thomas – 1851 Census

Were Benjamin Duncan and his wife Elizabeth related to their neighbours, Levi and Lidia Duncan? Nearby them lived Benjamin and Margaret Duncan. They were all Wesleyan Methodists, they were all born in the United States, they all shared a surname, and they were all recorded as being Black. What is their story?

What about John and Jane Spencer, and their children? In 1851, the family included young John, Sarah and Eliza (Elizabeth). By 1871, the family had grown by two more: Mary (Maria) and William. The parents, born in the United States, were listed as being of African (1851 Census) and Negro (1861 Census) origins.

Spencer – 1861 Census

They were living in a frame house, which has been built around 1840, near Erindale. All their children were born in Upper Canada (Ontario). What was their story? Where were they from? When did they come to Canada? Were John and Jane at one time enslaved?

And there are more, of whom we know very little. They include Samuel Carter, Benjamin and Hannah Workman, Lewis Morrell, William and Mary Ann Bell, and John Stephen, just to list a few.

Workman – 1861 Census

Why are their collective stories so difficult to find? Why was more information not recorded historically? Are we sifting through generations of historical biases, both overt and unconscious, that have led to the knowledge of early Black residents being lost or omitted from our histories? How can we reclaim that knowledge? I know that I am posing a lot of questions. I am also searching for answers – just without the traditional guideposts – such as published references, land ownership, life records, landscape remembrances, etc.

In looking back on our history, we can also see firm links in many of our earliest settling families to roots in the United States. While we do not evidence of slave ownership here in historic Mississauga, we can see that some families came from areas where slavery was an accepted practice – what was their family story in respect to enslaved peoples as chattel or property? Many United Empire Loyalists resettled in the Maritimes after the American Revolution, bringing their slaves with them. Many second generation Loyalists settled here in historic Mississauga. While they may not have brought enslaved peoples here that we are aware of, what might their own perceptions have been towards race and social structure? For example, would Alexander Hunter in Port Credit have been an accepted member of his community? What kind of prejudices might he have faced? Would he have been welcomed at the Merigold or Gable farms?

The exploration and examination of Black history is but part of the journey in coming to terms with our colonial past. From the historical point of view, it can start with simple questions around who, when and why. We have some names, which provide starting points. Hopefully, in time, more can be uncovered, and our historical understanding can grow. Then, perhaps, we can look to better connect those hidden histories into the story of this place.

There are some fabulous resources to explore as we seek to broaden perspectives:

And there is some much more to explore and to learn.

Read the article in Modern Mississauga: