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In The 6ix: A Black Baker Rises to the Top

by Marie Wilson about a month ago in Historical

started from the bottom

Photo: City of Toronto Archives

The man made good cakes. And following an apprenticeship, he got a job as a baker. It was 1861, he was nineteen years old. It wasn’t his first job - he’d been working since he was a kid to pay for school supplies - and it wouldn’t be his last. For the next sixteen years he kneaded dough, decorated cakes, baked pies. Then, he started driving horse-drawn cabs for his uncle’s livery stable. Years later, at the age of fifty-two, he became Toronto’s first Black elected politician.

He was William Peyton Hubbard. And I’d stumbled across a plaque about him in my neighbourhood. Among other things, it said: “In the late 1800s and well into the 20th century Hubbard was a city alderman who was often called upon to perform duties as acting mayor.” I had to take a moment to process that last fact.

Toronto had a Black mayor in the 19th century and well into the 20th.

Okay, acting mayor. But still, that’s big. And yet here were his accomplishments all contained on a moderately-sized plaque, set unobtrusively among the shrubbery in front of the house where he once lived. I wondered why I’d never heard of him and why there were no landmarks or streets named for him in his hometown of Toronto.

A year or so after I stood in front of his house musing on these questions, our City Councillor announced a contest to name a new park in our neighbourhood.

You know what name I put forward, right?

William Peyton Hubbard was born in a cabin in Toronto in 1842. He was the second of nine children born to Mosely and Lavenia Hubbard. His parents came to Toronto in 1840 via the Underground Railroad as refugee slaves who’d escaped a plantation in Virginia. As a boy, William lived with his family in various residences, including the caretaker’s quarters in a school where his father held that job.

The “Name Our Park” contest got ninety submissions. My entry made the shortlist, which contained seven names. I hit social media to let the locals know about this mostly unknown guy so they could vote him to the finals.

He made it to the top two. The public would now vote on Hubbard Park or Jack Layton Park.

Layton was the odds-on favourite. A beloved politician, he’d died just a few years earlier. But he already had several things named for him in the city. There’s even a statue of him. And I figured that Jack, being a champion of the under-privileged, would want the park named for WPH, himself a champion of the oppressed.

With Layton’s (imagined) blessing, my campaign began in earnest. Along with posting on social media I made flyers and put them up on poles, bulletin boards and TO’s finest hoarding. I asked businesses if they’d put one in their window. And I handed them out.

One spring day I stopped for a coffee at a bakery along the campaign trail. The warm buttery scent of baked goods ferried my thoughts to Hubbard, the cake-maker. It is said that he made his own birthday cake every year, even into his 10th decade. From there, I was reminded of Hubbard, the inventor. He created and patented the “Hubbard Portable Oven”, which would become a successful business venture for his brothers.

I took my coffee to the site of the future park. Sparrows chirped in a spindly tree growing at the edge of a dirt heap. Across a bordering street called Jack Layton Way (see what I mean?) Toronto’s first homeless shelter was built in 1860. The House of Refuge is long gone, but this bit of history recalls Hubbard’s unwavering devotion to the poor and disenfranchised. For forty years he sat on the board of the House of Industry, a charity for Toronto's poor, railing against those who claimed the city's unemployed were shiftless good-for-nothings.

Sweet and sour and gingery aromas began drifting over from Chinatown, just across from the park-to-be, as restaurants geared up for the dinner hour. Restaurants were one of two viable means for Chinese residents of Toronto to make a living in the late 19th century. The other was hand laundries. But when white affluent shop owners wanted to drive Chinese launderers out of business by demanding they be charged high licensing fees, Hubbard vehemently opposed the exorbitant tolls and nipped them in the bud.

Yes, if ever there was to be a Hubbard Park, this little spot suited it perfectly. But for WPH almost any location would’ve been good for green space. When he took office in 1894, urban parks were not a priority, but Hubbard thought they were important. He won a big fight over whether the city should accept a gift of a large privately owned park. His fellow Councillors thought managing it would be beyond the city’s capabilities. Hubbard convinced them otherwise, and that particular acreage became High Park, a jewel in Toronto’s crown.

WPH once wrote: “I have always felt that I am the representative of a race hitherto despised but if given a fair opportunity would be able to command esteem.” But Blacks had little in the way of fair opportunity in Toronto back in the day. They could be porters, factory workers, labourers. That was about it.

I can never really know Hubbard’s struggles in trying to realize fair opportunities for all so that they might command esteem. But I do know that as his own esteem grew, he launched many initiatives to help minority populations. For instance, he petitioned Council to take action “to prohibit attacks being made on the Jewish religion”, with a particular focus on anti-Semitic sidewalk preachers.

William and his battles, big and small, were at the forefront of my mind when I had to interrupt conversations to ask folks to vote for Hubbard Park. I do not like to encroach on people’s personal space but with WPH cheering me on (imagined), I approached anyone I thought might be interested. They’d look at me askance - an interloper, possibly even a sidewalk preacher. But if they lent an ear for a half second, they most often responded positively, and once they grasped the full meaning of my message, they enthusiastically embraced the cause.

One day, I approached a large group of picnickers who were bent on ignoring me. But when one woman finally had a look at my flyer, she instantly took all of them from my hand and gave them out to the group. “Listen up!” she yelled. “You have to vote for this man Hubbard.”

This man Hubbard won the “Name Our Park” contest.

Not long after that I met a man who told me that until he read in the local rag about the new park and its namesake, he ‘d never heard of William Peyton Hubbard. His son was five at the time and is, like his dad, Black. The man told me: “When I read about the park I said to my son: ‘Jack, you don’t understand how significant this is but we need to be at the park opening. I’ll explain everything later but you gotta come with me!’ And now, Jack knows. He’s gone back since. And that little park is like a temple for him. I mean, we have a park in our hood named for a Black guy who was mayor for a bit at the turn of the last century! You know, that’s pretty cool. That’s pretty cool.”

In 1935 WP Hubbard was on record as Toronto’s oldest native born inhabitant. He was ninety-three and he died that same year. Toronto's flags flew at half-mast.

If you are in downtown Toronto and you hear the big bell at Old City Hall chime, think on the man whose name is inscribed on it, a man who had a genuine affinity for the underdog and a devotion to bettering the quality of life for the citizens of Toronto.

And then go have some cake.

Historical
Marie Wilson
Marie Wilson
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Marie Wilson

I love to write and dance, occasionally at the same time.

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