A walk through black history in Canada

Western Libraries’ Archives and Research Collections Centre is home to rare, and in some cases unique, resources that illuminate important insights into black history in Canada and beyond. Here, we highlight just a few of the collection’s primary and secondary materials.

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It’s a tiny book, dwarfed by its neighbouring, weighty tomes in the Western Libraries’ Archives. But the autobiography of the slave life and escape of Moses Roper packs a wallop beyond its size, even 180 years after publication. The son of a house slave and her master, Roper was sold or traded 17 times, attempted escape at least as often, and endured torture that included lashings and being tarred and set on fire. He finally succeeded in fleeing to freedom in England, where he became a lecturer against slavery. The pocket-sized Roper’s Escape from Slavery became a key influencer in the nascent abolitionist movement.

Rev. William King was renowned throughout the U.S., England and Canada as a preacher, advocate and educator of escaped and emancipated slaves. He was a key player in starting Elgin Settlement – and supporting its farms, school, church and homes – “in order that it may be opened for settlement by people of colour and … to promote the improvement of the long neglected and deeply injured race.” Original, large-format maps of the settlement are also in the Archives, the homes and 50-acre farm lots clearly identified. By the 1860s the community, now North Buxton, was home to more than 2,000 people.

The Canadian League for the Advancement of Coloured People, begun in London in 1924, was the only organization in Canada chartered to improve the health, education and social support of Black Canadians. Western Libraries holds minutes of meetings and annual reports that detail donations and disbursements. Its board of directors was a who’s who of Londoners (including then-mayor George Wenige and Western librarian Fred Landon) and the organization collected and distributed thousands of dollars during its existence. Here, a tribute to serendipity and scholarship: the reports were found tucked in a different collection, when a librarian recognized its unique contribution to local history and it became part of the Landon fonds within the Archives. “There are very few of these records in existence,” Regnier said.

If ever you needed to heed the adage not to judge a book by its cover, it would be with this volume: nominally A Reference Handbook of the Medical Sciences. Pasted within its battered red covers is a treasure trove of letters, newspaper clippings and musings by the late Fred Landon, the prolific Western librarian and a pioneer in historical study of the Black experience in Canada. “Fred was well known for being thrifty so he would take a copy of a duplicate book and re-use it for a clippings scrapbook,” said archives assistant Theresa Regnier. Clippings include, for example, a tribute to an Aylmer-area school caretaker – 104-year-old former slave Lloyd Graves was so esteemed that, at his funeral in 1928, four ministers took turns giving eulogies and the procession stretched “about half a mile in length.

The Dawn of Tomorrow was a national newspaper founded by Londoner James F. Jenkins, its first edition in 1923 an eight-page broadsheet that sold for five cents. Working in partnership and advocacy with Western’s Fred Landon, Jenkins fought discriminatory hiring, promoted education and provided news of interest to Canadian Black people. At its zenith in the 1970s, its circulation was more than 40,000. Western holds original copies of the newspaper, as well as microfilm.