Hidden History

Black Then: Blacks in Montreal 1780s-1880s

By Joel Yanofsky

A review of Black Then: Blacks In Montreal 1780s-1880s by Frank Mackey

Published on October 1, 2004

Black Then: Blacks In Montreal 1780s-1880s
Frank Mackey

McGill-Queen's University Press
$24.95
paper
225pp
0-7735-2736-2

History isn’t what it used to be, at least not when it comes to chronicling it. Once you could count on the official record to be, well, official. More to the point, you didn’t have to worry about the events – and, in particular, the people – omitted. You could assume if no one was keeping track of them they didn’t matter much. Fortunately, there are now books like Frank Mackey’s to correct that assumption.

The desire to set the record straight not only informs Mackey’s history of an overlooked community, it is the book’s raison d’être.Of the century covered in his book, he writes, “Nothing about black Montrealers of that day is common knowledge.” Especially unknown is the fact that the institution of slavery existed in this country and city into the beginning of the 19th century. “You can still run into grown men and women who have never heard that slavery had its day in Canada,” Mackey says.

In his introduction, Mackey says, “More important than who does the telling is that the telling begin.” But Mackey is being too modest. A veteran copy editor at the Gazette and the author of Steamboat Connections: Montreal to Upper Canada 1816-1843, he is an ideal choice to handle this story. He has a newspaperman’s eye for human interest. The thirty tales included in Black Then cover a wide range of hardship and triumph. Mackey celebrates ordinary and extraordinary characters, upstanding citizens as well as engaging scoundrels.

Mackey also has a self-styled history buff’s enthusiasm for his material. Black Then is told in a unique style: a mix of research and invention. Because the lives chronicled in the book have been so spottily documented, Mackey is required to speculate. (Wildly at times: Mackey even imagines one scene in front of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.) In the case of Charity, a tavern servant falsely accused of theft, Mackey provides the few existing documents that clear her name:

 

All that’s left of her now is three scraps of paper. Tie them together, why don’t you. Make a small bundle, give some weight to her memory. She’ll just blow away otherwise.

 

What stands out is Mackey’s empathy for the people he is writing about. He doesn’t pretend, as many academically trained historians do, to be detached. In fact, sometimes he gets downright angry on behalf of his subjects. Telling the story of Israel “Bad News” Lewis, a con man, Mackey doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, but he does his best to put it in context:

What makes a man like Lewis go bad? Slavery. Look no further. He’d been a plantation slave in the American South, where sneakiness, faking, and masking the truth were survival skills. If the law made it illegal for you to learn to read and write, you wanted to keep your book and pencil stub out of sight. If you were bright and the whites were dumb, you played dumber. If your masters were beasts, you bowed to them.

Black Then also introduces us to women like opera singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, nicknamed the Black Swan, whose voice was so stirring she managed to make her audience forget their prejudice, at least for a while. Then there was Alexander Grant, a local entrepreneur and activist, who was among the first blacks in Montreal to speak out publicly against slavery. Despite his courage and his accomplishments, Mackey is still compelled to repeat his book’s most persistent refrain: “So how come nobody’s heard of him?”

Thanks to Black Then and Frank Mackey, we now have. mRb

Joel Yanofsky is the author of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.

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