Black Leadership in the Annex
This was written by Larissa Gregorovich on the Annex Facebook page. It's compiled from various sources, and she wants to make clear that it is by no means a perfect version made for publication. It is really a collection of sources in order to tell a story. Thank you Larissa, for compiling this and allowing us to share it.
As neighbours prepare to peacefully gather today at Christie Pits in all of their PPE gear, and hopefully rain gear, for the #notanotherblacklife march, it’s reminded me of the deep roots of the Black community in the Annex. Way back “the Annex” was called “the Bush”, and was just a rural area near the intersection of what is now Bloor and Bathurst.
One of the first settlers here is believed to have been a woman named Deborah Brown, who arrived in the 1860s. A former slave, she escaped the United States through the Underground Railway and lived in a house on Markham Street.
And of course, William Peyton Hubbard, who was born in 1842 in a log cabin near what is now Bloor and Brunswick. At a time when Black people were not allowed in many Toronto hotels and restaurants, at the age of 51 he embarked on a political career, and became one of the most influential politicians in the city. Over the course of his political career, he was the first Black person in Toronto, and often in Canada, to hold the positions he occupied.
In 1894 he was Toronto’s first Black elected official, (elected as an alderman to a ward spanning University Avenue to Bathurst, one of the wealthiest and whitest wards in the city. Voters there returned him to office 14 times), and controller (1898–1908), and as acting mayor periodically.
He was the second of nine children born to Mosely and Lavenia Hubbard, who’d escaped enslavement on a plantation in Virginia and reached Canada in 1840 via the Underground Railroad. Despite a meagre income from work as a labourer, school caretaker and other jobs, Mosely Hubbard paid for his son’s education at Toronto’s Model School. He believed in freedom through education.
W.P. Hubbard learned the baking trade at the Model School in Toronto and worked in the baking industry for sixteen years. His specialty was cakes. Not only did he perfect the craft of baking, but he invented a successful new commercial baking oven. He then drove a taxicab until he was encouraged to embark on a political career.
His great grand-daughter, Lorraine Hubbard, then-VP of the Ontario Black History Society, said that as “somebody who was quite visible from the norm,” W.P. Hubbard “got involved in issues that no one else had touched before, issues that no one else would go near because they were afraid that it was unpopular at the time.” His passionate but meticulously researched speeches earned him the nickname “the Cicero of the Council” (after the ancient Roman orator).*
A major political issue at the time, the campaign for “people’s power” prioritized access to inexpensive and locally-controlled electricity as a public good instead of private profit making. Hubbard’s initiatives included reforms to municipal departments to combat corruption by government officials, and keeping the public transportation system under city control, but he made his name fighting for public ownership of Toronto's water and hydroelectric supplies. Despite facing immense backlash from Toronto’s business community, who wanted a private power system, Hubbard advocated for the development of a province-wide, publicly owned hydroelectric system.
He also opposed various forms of discrimination. In 1896, he defended the small Chinese community against unfair taxes meant to discourage Chinese-operated hand laundries and also presented a petition to City Council calling for an end to "attacks on the Jewish religion" by anti-Semitic street preachers.
Coincidentally, the alderman, dubbed the Grand Old Man by Toronto press in his political days, and serving well into his 90s, was quite literally the oldest man in the city for a short period before his death. He is buried in the Toronto Necropolis.
For over 150 years, the Bloor and Bathurst neighbourhood has been a hub for Black communities, (as a devout booklover I’d like to give a hearty shout out to A Different Booklist). There is so much Black community history here I couldn’t begin to even touch on it all, but if you’re curious, I encourage you to look for it.
*Hubbard would not be impressed at all with my quick little history here without any sources. I just now cobbled this together from different websites as I was thinking about him. I’m no historian so feel free to correct me where I’m wrong!