(En)countering History and Racism by the Elevator

By Mark T. S. Currie

A few summers ago, I signed up for the Ontario Black History Society’s (OBHS) walking tour[1] in downtown Toronto. I took the tour not only because of the importance of learning Black history, but also because the walking method seemed to be a way of feeling the histories in their respective spaces. I was intrigued to experience how the OBHS tour guides might present the city as a living museum where everyday streets are ever-changing interactive exhibits. When I and two friends—both women of colour—met the OBHS tour guides—both Black women—our journey began in what was once the southern end of The Ward.

With Toronto’s College Street and Queen Street West (north to south), and Yonge Street and University Avenue (east to west) marking the boundaries, the historic neighbourhood of The Ward was an area reputed at different times as a Black community, a Jewish community, a Chinese community, and, more generally, a neighbourhood of poor immigrants, all juxtaposed with dominant, colonial understandings of Toronto as a city of white, British origins (never mind the city spanning across the land of numerous First Nations).[2] While some residents of The Ward were financially poor, others were business owners, physicians, teachers, and more. When exactly people stopped referring to the area as ‘The Ward’ is uncertain, and seemingly the name drifted from common use as “Businesses, churches, synagogues, theatres, and shops closed as residents were moved out and buildings were demolished to make way for hospitals, government buildings, Eaton’s Department Store, a bus terminal, New City Hall and Nathan Phillip Square”.[3] Rather than recall histories of The Ward,[4] or even the entirety of the OBHS walking tour, I share, instead, an incident that occurred at the beginning of the tour that speaks to links between history and racism and lends to questions about the effects of public displays of history.

Personal photo submitted by the author.

The first stop of the tour took us inside Toronto City Hall to a display that described Cecilia Reynolds, a Black woman, as “a formerly enslaved woman who found freedom in Toronto,” positioning her as an example of people who populated The Ward. Positioned on both sides of elevator doors, the display on the right-hand side showed a picture of the foundation of Cecilia Reynolds’s house that was unearthed during an archaeological excavation.

Personal photo submitted by the author.

The display on the left-hand side showed a map of The Ward with an outlined area indicating the block where Reynolds’ house foundation was found. Within both display cases were household items (e.g. several glass bottles, pieces of a dinner plate, a ceramic figurine) that were found in and around Reynolds’ house foundation, and accompanying the picture, map, and artifacts was a narrative describing the perceived significance of the items to the history of the area shown on the map. The description stated that “Home to many newcomers in the 19th and early-20th, The Ward represents a rich legacy of urban diversity and mutual support that characterizes Toronto’s many intersecting communities to this day.” Although the displayed history was brief and somewhat shallow as far as historical inquiry goes, the display was shifting the way my friends and I saw the cityscape we thought we knew so well. We wanted to know more and began peppering the tour guides with questions and comments, but we were interrupted.

A white woman who worked in the building asked us with more command than actual request, “Can you move your conversation away from the elevator?” She told us with frustration, “I missed my elevator because you were talking in front of the doors” (emphasis added). We were standing approximately two metres back from the elevator. Taken aback by this encounter, my friends and I stood silent as one of the guides calmly informed the woman that we were on a tour. Seeing my friend’s camera and no doubt thinking that she was helping, the woman told us we should go to the displayed art across the lobby for a better background for photographs. At that point, the elevator arrived and she departed, leaving us frustrated and questioning the effects of the display meant to inform public audiences of silenced racialized Black histories. 

The interaction with the woman lasted less than a minute, but that minute was packed with indicators of the ever-fluctuating relationships between history, racism, and belonging. One guide stated that unfortunately she often encountered this type of racism, and she declared that people like the woman did not understand what we were doing by taking the tour and engaging the displayed history. When I tell this story to classes in a teacher education program, it’s the mention of racism that confuses (most often white) people. “You can’t say the woman was racist. Rude, maybe, but she didn’t do anything because of anyone’s race. She just needed to get to work,” to which I clarify that I didn’t say the woman was racist. What she did was racist. Racism is not about intentions; it’s about effects of exclusion, and the effects are linked to history. In the interaction by the elevator, one effect was that the women of colour with whom I stood were being told that the white woman’s place within that lobby space was more important than their own presence. Another effect was that the history of Cecilia Reynolds and The Ward was deemed to be unworthy of engagement—unimportant—as the white woman pointed to “better” places in the lobby, thereby continuing to ignore and silence histories of communities of colour. 

These effects stem from the histories of colonization, slavery (yes, Canada had slavery), segregated schools (again, yes, Canada had forms of official segregation), discrimination in obtaining employment and housing, over-policing, and other systemic barriers, not to mention individual acts of racist violence. Indeed, the interaction with the white woman did not feature these specific forms of racism, but it was yet another experience of exclusion for women of colour while banality of the history of Whiteness allowed that white woman to take her belongingness in that space for granted.[5] The displays of history flanking the elevator doors were meant to create inclusion for Black histories, specifically of The Ward,[6] but while representation is important, it is insufficient if there is nothing to interrupt and make the comfort of white dominance uncomfortable. Histories in public spaces cannot be presented as just interesting stories or commemorative décor and must be active in making people recognize and even question the relationships between their sense of belonging and the past.   

Mark Currie is a PhD Candidate and Educator in the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. He focuses his research around public pedagogies, sociohistorical space, and enacting antiracisms. His doctoral work examines how the Ontario Black History Society’s walking tour in downtown Toronto acts as an educational tool for engaging and (re)shaping sociohistorical spaces as antiracist geographies.

[1] For information on the Ontario Black History Society and its walking tour, see blackhistorysociety.ca. Tour activity may be limited due to Covid-19.

[2] Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, The Mississaugas of the Credit: Historical Territory, Resource and Land Use, self-published, 2018.

[3] Toronto Ward Museum, “About the Ward,” 2020, http://www.wardmuseum.ca/picturingtheward/theward/

[4] See John Lorinc, Michael McClelland, Ellen Scheinberg, and Tatum Taylor, eds., The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood (Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2015).

[5] See Robyn Maynard, Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to Present (Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2017).  

[6] Infrastructure Ontario, “Infrastructure Ontario and The City of Toronto Create Partnership to Showcase Artifacts from New Toronto Courthouse Archaeological Dig,” February 22, 2017, https://www.infrastructureontario.ca/Backgrounder-Partnership-to-Showcase-Artifacts/

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