The annual Black History Month blog series will look at the narratives and historical records of the Black community after the end of the Underground Railroad and through the 20th century.
Part 3 of a 6-part series.
Newspapers are an important source of information in finding the historical pulse of a community. While the documentation isn’t perfect, and there are always gaps of subjects that didn’t receive coverage, the news stories and photographs can tell us a lot about the tangible history of the subject of news and the history of the community’s intangible biases and interests.
In today’s post we’ll glimpse the lives of Black community members through the late 19th and early 20th centuries through one of our richest local history sources: the newspaper.
Early newspapers, especially during the time of the Underground Railroad, were focused on reporting on the activities of the Black community in general, rarely including specific individual identities of folks in stories. The stories themselves give a glimpse of the lives of the community, but also reveal the language used by white-owned newspapers in describing their activities. The stories can be sensational as well and it is unclear if the paper intended for readers to be afraid and cautious, or if prejudice was just so entrenched and normalized that these types of stories were second nature for editors of the day.
Warning: the descriptions and language used by newspapers included below is racist, includes negative depictions of Black people, and may be upsetting to some readers.
Typical wording includes:
“The First of August – To-morrow being the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies, the colored people in this town and vicinity, as usual, intend celebrating the day according to their usual custom…The colored people, in this locality, as a general thing, conduct themselves very orderly, and we trust they will not be subject to annoyance from rowdies, but allowed to celebrate the day without molestation.”St. Catharines Constitutional, July 31, 1862.
“Wat dat, Massa? — A young scion of Africa, who drives the omnibus baggage wagon for Mr. A Davis, became seriously alarmed Friday night, in consequence of a ghost, which he said was pursuing him and riding on top of the baggage…”Evening Journal, August 15, 1868.
“An enormous darkey was wildly declaiming on a street corner yesterday, to a motley crowd, encouraged by the shouts and approval from his auditors.”Daily Times, September 9, 1874.
Processing these texts is difficult for modern eyes since articles like these are so glaringly and casually racist. The volume of these articles in publication over time normalizes these kinds of descriptions about the Black community and clearly snowballed in influence over the community for generations.
Using articles such as these as historical sources can offer a lot of information to modern historians, shedding light on the activities of the Black community and coverage by white newspapers.
That it was common for Black gatherings to be interrupted by white “rowdies” or those looking to disrupt celebrations, especially the Emancipation Day celebrations, is not surprising: large gatherings often attracted both negative and positive attention. Though, the article wishing for an annoyance-free event is significant and reveals that very common contradiction of the friendly racist in the exchange of earned respect for good behaviour.
“The coloured people conducted themselves in the most orderly and respectable manner during the entire day.”St. Catharines Constitutional, August 3, 1865.
Rarely, if ever, is the good conduct of the white population newsworthy. Instead, including these notes, seemingly every year in the 1860s, with the report on Emancipation Day appears to reassure readers, since so much of the remaining coverage of the Black community is focused on violence and crime.
It’s worth remembering the contemporary white news readers at home forming opinions about their neighbours with the help of these articles.
Aside from the racist language and use of descriptors instead of identities, we learn that Black people were part of all corners of the city and community life, and participated through education, church and other community institutions, and work. The daily life of Black folks in post-Underground Railroad St. Catharines was not far off from what we can imagine. Folks went to school or work, they were members of their church and local community groups and clubs. They participated in leisure and played sports. They celebrated holidays and participated in civic life.
In considering the popular questions of life after the Underground Railroad, it seems that even after the departure of many Freedom Seekers, Black folks just continued, rather than disappeared. Indeed, there are countless articles in the archives between 1870 and 1900 detailing the births, deaths, weddings, baptisms, concerts and events, celebrations, picnics, and even significant fires, thefts, accidents, and more all reminding us that the Black community was thriving and visible in the city after the Underground Railroad.
Racism did not disappear from newspapers in the 20th century. Journalistic practices, however, began to reform and improve standards so that folks were more correctly identified in reporting and in photographs. The presence of photography in 20th century media coverage also advances our understanding of the life and times of the city.
Some of our favourite photographs from the St. Catharines Standard show children at play. It’s rare to capture history from the perspective of children and these photographs of everyday events help us to better understand and contextualize their lives. What we might not expect from newspaper coverage in the 1870s is on full display in the 1930s: the reporting of several community events that feature Black and white children playing together.
For example, in the summer of 1939, the Standard covered the annual field day of the St. Catharines City playgrounds. Because racially segregated education was still the norm (at least until 1965 when the last segregated school in Ontario was closed), in this period, it might be considered newsworthy that Black and white children were playing together, however, none of the typically prejudiced language appears with the story. It’s merely a sports report of the day’s races and contests with captioned and named photographs. This suggests that it was not only normal for Black and white children to participate in events like this together, but that the city’s public spaces were open to all.
Participation in the annual Emancipation Day picnic celebrations, whether in 1853 or 1953, was – and is – an important part of the community calendar. The festivities, known as the “Big Picnic,” reached their peak between the 1930s-1950s. Over decades of event coverage, children and their families are photographed playing at the beach, riding on the Lakeside Park Carousel, and partaking in the many amusement park attractions available.
The benefit of such in-depth coverage of the annual August picnic was that the Black community had space to share their celebration with the rest of the community. They had always done so. The history of the picnic reaches back to the first Emancipation Day in 1834. News coverage of the events in the 1860s was merely an announcement of the occurrence, a collective experience for, seemingly, the entire Black population of the city:
“The coloured people seem to be celebrating the day with considerable spirit [and] the processions marched through the streets.”Evening Journal, August 1, 1864.
Something had changed in the 1940s and 1950s, perhaps the use of photography itself, that saw the inclusion of individuals in coverage and perhaps that’s why these photographs are vital to our cultural identity today. Though some racist language persisted, space was made for community events like the Big Picnic in which the Black readers could see themselves. While coverage of parades, carnivals, and other community festivities at the time feature largely white audiences, the Big Picnic at Lakeside Park was a space designed by, and meant for, the Black community, and that space, at least for the day, overflowed on to the pages of the Standard.
If anything, newspapers reveal to historians the context of the day for our understanding of the experiences of Black people in post-Underground Railroad St. Catharines, but only in part. Representation of Black lives, institutions, and events were important, but so was participation in wider civic life. The prejudicial and societal contradictions that the Black community navigated in public life, as covered in the newspapers, are just a snapshot of their daily experiences. As one of only a handful of source materials from the period we are exploring, newspapers are vital to our depiction of history, but they are a product of their time and must be considered, like all historical material, in their own context.
Coming up on Sunday, February 19: the blog series looks at yearbooks from High Schools in the city.
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The 2023 Black History Month Blog Series is written by Sara Nixon, Adrian Petry, and Kathleen Powell.