Life in the City Directories: Historical Records After the Underground Railroad

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 5 of a 6-part series.

Our city was the setting where newly freed People of Colour could earn a living, raise families in their own homes, and thrive as a community in the 19th century. Fleeing enslavement in the United States, and overcoming prejudice here in Canada, the Freedom Seekers who settled here between the 1830s and 1860s were determined to build full, and fulfilling, lives – which centred on the ability to earn a living wage for the first time. Paid employment offered agency, independence, and opportunity.

A small subsection from the 1865 St. Catharines Directory sheds light into the types of employment held by People of Colour at the time. Also note how People of Colour are explicitly distinguished in the listings. STCM Reference Library.

St. Catharines city directories list a wide range of employment held by Black community members. More detailed than today’s phone book, a city directory not only listed local businesses and their locations, but also alphabetically listed residents (mostly only heads of households or working adults) while also noting their profession and approximate home address. Although the choice to explicitly identify People of Colour living in St. Catharines as “coloured” in the 1865 City Directory is inherently racist, it does offer valuable insight into the types of jobs held by Freedom Seekers. Most found paid work as labourers or in the hospitality industry as waiters, porters, cooks, and cleaners. Others made a living as grocers, shoemakers, gardeners, sailors, coopers, carpenters, drivers, and even as a doctor – Dr. James H. Thompson, a Black refugee who had fled the United States and settled in St. Catharines by 1861,1 worked his way up the ranks at the Stephenson House Hotel, a spa resort boosting the healing powers of the mineral salt springs. Thompson was promoted from servant to bathhouse tender and finally to doctor overseeing the care of patrons at the resort over just a few short years.

The listing for Dr. James H. Thompson is highlighted int the 1865 St. Catharines Directory. STCM Reference Library.

Sowing Seeds, Rooting Down

By noting People of Colour, the 1865 Directory also enables us to trace members of the Black community beyond the years of the Underground Railroad –tracking their names over subsequent years via subsequent directories. City directories make clear that most Freedom Seekers left St. Catharines in the years following the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865. However, some did stay, and put down roots. By consulting other sources like census records for verification, descendants of Freedom Seekers with surnames like Ball, Bell, Dorsey, Harper, and Nicholson (to name only a few), can be traced through the annual city directories across the last decades of the 19th century, and into the 20th century.

As one example, Freedom Seeker Henry Ball is listed in the 1865 St. Catharines Directory as a labourer. His son Richard, born in St. Catharines, is listed on the line below as a barber under Aaron Young, also a Freedom Seeker. The Business Directory of the same year locates the barbershop on St. Paul Street. I was able to follow Richard Ball through the directories until 1887, continuing as a barber on St. Paul Street. Census records also show that, during this time, Richard had married and raised a family of at least five children.3 Records show that one of his sons, Henry Ball (named after his grandfather), would continue the family profession for a brief time, also practicing as a barber. By 1895, Henry would change work and become a gardener, and by 1912, a labourer.

The listings as they appear for Henry Ball and son Richard Ball are highlighted in the 1865 St. Catharines Directory. STCM Reference Library.

Missing from the St. Catharines directories is record of the Ball family’s extensive involvement with the British Methodist Episcopal Church, the primary place of worship for the local Black community since the 1850s. The B.M.E. Church was often considered “miscellaneous” in the directory church listings over the time-period I was searching – and thus the information recorded was minimal compared to other, more predominant religious congregations in St. Catharines.

A group of adults pose for a photo dressed in formal day clothing in 1890.
Rev. Richard Ball, his wife, Mary, their eight children and, later, even more numerous grandchildren all sang and played musical instruments. Their gospel music group, the “Ball Family Jubilee Singers” would have performed at the B.M.E. Church, as well as toured Canada and the United States. STCM T2008.16.16

Growing Upward

City directories only tell us the type of employment a person held. Tracing Black families through the years suggests that the majority of People of Colour held working class positions that may have required less education or training. Educational opportunities and class were likely barriers to members of the Black community seeking upward mobility in society – and these barriers would have been inextricably tied to race.

While city directories might not be able to offer nuance, they are still a good starting point to delve deeper into Black workers’ experiences on the job. One Black community member, Mary Bell, worked at The Canadian Company in St. Davids in 1937. She was one of 200 women canning asparagus who walked off the job demanding higher pay. The female labourers worked ten-hour days and sought an increase in wage from 18 to 25 cents per hour. They eventually accepted their employer’s offer of 22 cents per hour.4 Mary’s participation in the strike highlights her aspirations towards a better livelihood, and the value she saw in her own work.

Mary Bell is pictured amongst the group of striking women at Canadian Canning (front row, third from right) in 1937. STCM 1937.33.8.1.

City Directories can also offer a glimpse into the legacies Black community members aspired towards through their work. A look in the 1960 St. Catharines Directory, for example, highlights the accolades of Mal (Mallagy) Nicholson. According to his listing, Mal was the President and General Manager of Mal Nicholson Ltd, an excavation, grading, asphalt paving, and railway contracting business located at Dunkirk and Welland Avenue, near the QEW Highway. He and his wife, Jeanne, lived at 63 Garnet Street. Mal was also a direct descendent of Freedom Seeker Adam Nicholson.

Adam Nicholson (d.1911) escaped from bondage in the United States and, through the Underground Railroad network, arrived in St. Catharines in the mid-1850s. Eventually settling on Church Road, Grantham, Adam chose to root down and raise his six children with his wife, Mary Ann. Their children, and later grandchildren, including Mal, would grow up to become active, industrious members of the community and local economy.

Mallagy Nicholson sits for a portrait with his father, Adam Alexander (Alex) Nicholson, c. 1911
Mallagy Nicholson sits for a portrait with his father, Adam Alexander (Alex) Nicholson, c. 1911. Alex was the son of Freedom Seeker Adam Nicholson. He would go on to run a successful trucking company in St. Catharines. STCM 2007.71.1.

The legacy Mal Nicholson worked to build through his contracting business grew far beyond St. Catharines. A multi-page profile of Mal Nicholson Ltd. was featured in the December 1961 edition of Ebony, a monthly American magazine focusing on Black issues, personalities, and interests. Equating Mal to “Canada’s John Henry,” the article boasted that Mal’s contracting company “has been linking with threads of steel the factories and railroads which feed the nation’s markets.” Employing over 50 workers, by 1961, Mal Nicholson Ltd. built railroad lines across Ontario, including at the Canadian Oil and Sun Oil refineries in Sarnia and Ford Motor Co. in Oakville.5 More locally, the contractor also excavated and graded the land for the Fairview Mall and the Saints Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Catholic Church, by the QEW. When asked about his strides towards the future, Nicholson claimed that Ontario was “his personal hand of opportunity… ‘This is Canada’s workshop and this is Canada’s century. It’s a great time and a great place for a man to be in business.”

Image and caption appeared in “Builder of Railroads,” a multi-page feature on Mal Nicholson that appeared in Ebony magazine in December 1961.

One brief line in a city directory can offer endless possibility in delving into the working experiences of the people who lived and worked in St. Catharines throughout our past. By tracing the names of Black community members from the earliest editions of our directories in the 1850s through to today, we can trace the legacies first sowed by Freedom Seekers, as well as the continuity of determination and hard work within the community.

Coming up on Sunday, February 26: the blog series looks at yearbooks from High Schools in the city.

Follow along this Black History Month. Subscribe and share our posts to help share more of these important narratives.

The 2023 Black History Month Blog Series is written by Sara Nixon, Adrian Petry, and Kathleen Powell.

One comment

  1. Thank you so very much for writing these reports. I know it must have taken time and care and knowledge to complete this series. It is so valuable not only for African Americans but for all North Americans and the world. I have been a writing for much of my career. Although I am semi-retired, I am working on creating stories of fiction that are based on the journey of Africans in America and places that their journey took them to find a free space and life.

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