background to Free Black North exhibition at the AGO

Dr Julia Crooks
by Wayne Gilbert

Toronto. February was Black History month. PHSC member Dr Julie Crooks of the AGO discussed the background to her exhibition, “Free Black North”, and the influence blacks had on photography. She is busy conducting on-going research while performing her regular job. Her research examines the way blacks used photography in migrating north. Fugitivity is a main theme (literal framework) in her research and she quoted Saidiya Hartman‘s definition of the term. Blacks were shown in typical stances in photographs. In 1850, America passed the fugitive slave act which returned anyone even suspected of being a fugitive slave back to the owners. From 1850 to 1860, some 15,000 to 40,000 fugitive slaves escaped to Canada or one of the “free” states in America.

A newspaper article in the Southern Ontario paper, Provincial Freeman, was written by Reverend Horace Hawkins in the mid 1850s. In 1863, Hawkins travelled throughout Ontario investigating the plight of fugitives basically saying that prejudices in Canada meant refusal of accommodation in any hotel or passage on any railroad due to the rapid immigration of blacks and a fear they would take over the western counties as a majority. The reverend settled in Southern Ontario after fleeing Kentucky. Most immigrants to Canada were from Britain and viewed Ontario as a white British colony. Blacks were shown as caricatures and second class citizens. 

Around 1850, the so-called science of phrenology emerged. Phrenology purports to show blacks have lower intelligence. Photography began to offer a means to escape this poor representation. Rochester NY’s North Star newspaper publisher Frederick Douglass (of fugitive portrait fame and one of the most photographed men in history) did an article on the portraits of black men. Douglass felt that white photographers were unable to take impartial portraits of blacks; their work always resulting in caricatures.

 Dr Crooks’ exhibition was an expansion of her research into 27 tintypes and some CDVs of African-Canadians/Americans who once lived in Southern Ontario where countless blacks were photographed (black subjects were accepted since photography was a business and money was money).

Dr Crooks selected prints from two Ontario archives:  1). the Bell/Sloman archives at Brock University’s James Gibson Library building in St Catharines, which has a  rich collection of images and ephemera of blacks ranging from the 1850s to 1970s – Bell rescued a large number of portraits from his mother’s attic. The images were destined for the junk heap!  2). the Alvin McCurdy collection (McCurdy’s brother Howard died the day of this talk), at the Archives of Ontario in Toronto, with its background of many prominent people with fugitive ancestors collected over 40 years. 

A tintype featured in the exhibition was borrowed from the Bell collection. It shows an unnamed girl thought to be a domestic worker. By the time of this portrait, anyone could afford a portrait. 

Dr Crooks discovered an overwhelming number of black girls and women in the collections. She began to close her talk by quoting Harvey Young on cross border traffic. She offered the opinion that, “images of blacks shaped the way photography was used in Canada”. The two archives she used in her exhibition disrupted the concept of migration and forced the movement and settlement from a white British colonial perspective to a more encompassing perspective.

After her talk Dr Crooks enjoyed the relaxation of the spirited Q&A discussions making a very positive impression on those present that evening. 

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