Historical plaque recalls 19th century black on Mountain
It was a fitting way to wrap up Black History Month in Hamilton.
A plaque commemorating the history of the black community on the Mountain went up on an outside front wall of the Concession Street branch of the Hamilton Public Library Feb 26.
Across the street once stood the Mission Church, a popular gathering spot for people of African descent who purchased land along the street between Upper Wellington and Upper Sherman starting in the 1840s.
Most were from the United States and many were former slaves who had found their way to Canada by migrating north or via the Underground Railroad.
According to the plaque, many worked as farmers, carters, labourers, skilled trade’s people and entrepreneurs.
Dubbed “Little Africa”, the community survived for several decades before most of the inhabitants purchased land in the lower city or moved back to the U.S. or elsewhere.
“I think it’s great to show the diversity of Hamilton,” said Evelyn Myrie, chair of the city’s Black History Committee, one of the groups that had been seeking to have the African community’s contribution to the city recognized. “The black contribution to Hamilton is not new; we’ve had a very robust community since the late 1700s.”
In her book The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway, African Canadians in Hamilton, Toronto author Adrienne Shadd devotes a chapter to Little Africa.
“It wasn’t that large of a community,” said Shadd, who was on hand for the official unveiling of the plaque last week. “There may be (was) 50 or 60-75 people up here.”
Shadd said she spent several months looking over old land registry documents to gather material for her book and she wanted to clear up some long-held misconceptions about the 19th century black community on the Mountain.
“They bought their land like everybody else, they were not given free land,” she said. “For so long people have been reiterating the same story that they were given this land because they were destitute and that just wasn’t the case.”
Robin McKee, chair of the joint-plaquing subcommittee of the Hamilton Historical Board, said he first proposed a plaque to recognize the history of the black community on the Mountain back in 2005.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said McKee, who researched the subject and wrote the first draft of the wording for the plaque.
Mountain historian and author Bob Williamson said the draft was turned over to Shadd for her input.
“She took the wording we prepared and redrafted it to suit the requirements and the tone of the black community,” said Williamson, who is also a member and former chair of the joint plaquing sub committee.