Historicist: Public History and William Peyton Hubbard | culture | Torontoist
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Historicist: Public History and William Peyton Hubbard

This Historicist instalment originally appeared on February 14, 2009.

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On the Roof of Old City Hall, July 14, 1898. Hubbard is third from the bottom right. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1268, Series 1317, Item 216. Image courtesy of Heritage Toronto.

In 2008, a local resident discovered that the historical plaque near 660 Broadview Avenue—erected 30 years ago by the Toronto Historical Board to honour William Peyton Hubbard, the city’s first municipal politician of African descent—was damaged. They returned the pieces to Heritage Toronto, which unveiled a replacement marker in February 2009 with a ceremony for students at Montcrest School. Over the years, Hubbard has been commemorated in public ceremony, newspaper retrospectives, a biography, and now a second historical plaque. And his story offers insight into the ways the lives of prominent citizens can become entangled with the politics of commemoration.

There is a common narrative shared between them all. The Toronto-born son of a Virginian freed slave, Hubbard worked for 16 years as a cake baker before becoming a cab driver. As he was driving one wintry night, he saved another cab from nearly plummeting into the Don River. A friendship blossomed between Hubbard and the grateful occupant of that cab, newspaperman George Brown, who later encouraged him to seek elected office at the age of 51. He was narrowly defeated in the municipal election of 1893, but made a strong impression with the public and the press. In 1894, Hubbard was elected alderman, the first of 14 consecutive (and 15 total) terms in office. Over the course of his career, he also served on the Board of Control from 1898 and served as acting mayor on a number of occasions.

The present day is always exerting pressure in public commemoration. As Thomas Symons, then-chair of the Canadian Historic Sites and Monuments Board, said in the introduction to his The Place of History (1997): “Heritage is…the aspirations of the people who made it, and one might add, the aspirations of the people who have chosen to preserve it.” Often it’s an act that celebrates more than it engages critiques or controversies surrounding historical questions. Looking at a few instances of public commemoration of Hubbard—each of which highlight different points of emphasis—we can see how each reveals or obscures different aspects of character and gain a fuller picture of Hubbard.


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Portrait of William Peyton Hubbard (1913) by W.A. Sherwood (1859-1919). City of Toronto Art Collection, Cultural Services.


The retirement ceremony celebrating Hubbard’s life in politics in November 1913 was suitably grandiose. A portrait of Hubbard, painted by W.A. Sherwood, was unveiled. It now hangs in the office of a senior policy advisor after years on the wall of City Hall’s Committee Room One. With mayors and aldermen past and present in attendance, speeches praised Hubbard’s many political achievements. A conservative, Hubbard brought passion and a keen business sense to public life. As a reformer, he fought corruption in government departments and against the misconduct of government officials.

Although he was quiet and calm in private, Hubbard was a powerful public speaker, who colleagues even dubbed “the Cicero of the Council.” While he verbally attacked anyone, colleagues included, who was guilty of misconduct, Hubbard always impeccably researched to ensure the evidence supported his accusations. His outspoken nature and frank honesty—which made for good newspaper copy—also ensured Hubbard developed a positive relationship with the press that lasted his entire life.

In 1898 he was appointed to the Board of Control, a powerful four-member cabinet that advised the mayor and monitored municipal spending. His pressures for democratic reforms were partly responsible for getting that body elected by citizens at large rather than appointed by city councillors. For his efforts, Hubbard was re-elected to the Board of Control until 1908 by increasing electoral margins—even topping the polls with 15,035 votes in 1906. He also served on a wide variety of commissions and committees, and assumed leadership roles on the Union of Canadian Municipalities and the Ontario Municipal Association.

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Front Page Editorial Cartoon. Toronto Star on November 6, 1913.

Hubbard’s long-time stance in favour of municipal ownership of utilities thrust him to the forefront of one of the biggest (and bitterest) debates of the early 20th century: whether hydro-electric power ought to be developed and operated by private interests or under public control. Working with Adam Beck and the provincial Hydro-Electric Power Commission, Hubbard eventually secured the legislation necessary to allow Toronto to operate a public electrical grid. Ironically, his tireless efforts in this cause took him away from his other aldermanic duties and led to his electoral defeat in 1908. Adam Beck, who was later knighted for his part in promoting public power, even made a surprise appearance at the retirement celebration in 1913—for Hubbard had returned to office in 1913 before retiring to attend to his ailing wife. Beck praised Hubbard as indispensable to the success of the publicly owned power system.

In recalling Hubbard’s enviable list of achievements in public office until his retirement, newspaper accounts made no mention at all of his race. It’s odd because readers were certainly well aware of Hubbard’s skin colour, and newspapers hadn’t shied away from it previously. In fact, on occasions when they disagreed with his politics, newspapers sometimes exaggerated his features. On other occasions, the press pointed to Hubbard’s success as evidence that racial prejudice was not a problem in forward-thinking Toronto. In 1913, journalistic blindness to this context downplays why Hubbard achieving what he did when he did it is all the more remarkable.

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Hubbard from a composite photo of the City controllers, c.1907. Image Courtesy of Heritage Toronto

Although a great deal of genuine concern for the city’s black community existed in Toronto, the sentiment could also be rather paternalistic. As York University’s Dr. Wilson Head has said, blacks “were seen as people who belonged here, but not to be gotten too close to.” In Hubbard’s time, Toronto’s pioneer black population hardly constituted an economic or political force. The population of this community—concentrated in Ward Three—was tiny and had little to offer to potential political allies as a voting bloc, according to Keith S. Henry in Black Politics in Toronto Since World War I (1981). On the other hand, a sparse population meant this community was not seen as threatening to the dominant social order. Hubbard was therefore able to deftly chart his own individual course through the social politics of the day, buoyed by his father’s philosophy of self-improvement. He cultivated connections to the social establishment through his youth at the highly respected Model School and his life long attendance at St. George’s Anglican Church on John Street. And so for most of his career, Hubbard represented Ward Four—not Ward Three as one might expect—which was inhabited by an affluent (and almost exclusively white) population of professionals and intellectuals. Reports of his 1913 retirement therefore obscure Hubbard’s agility in surmounting the inequities of the age faced by the larger black community.

By the time Hubbard was finally commemorated with a historical plaque in 1979, a number of newspaper articles had reinterpreted his story through the prism of multiculturalism. The plaque’s text reassessed him as “a champion of the rights of various minorities.” Lorraine Hubbard, then-VP of the Ontario Black History Society, argued that as “somebody who was quite visible from the norm,” 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.” Hubbard’s forty-year involvement with the House of Industry charity certainly attests to his social conscience, but there are only a handful of occasions on record when he actively pressed for minority rights in the council chambers. In placing such emphasis on this aspect of Hubbard’s life, the 1979 plaque and Against All Odds (1986)—the biography written by Stephen L. Hubbard, his great-great-grandson—don’t place Hubbard into the broader critical context of black politics in Toronto.

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Obituary from the Toronto Star on April 30, 1935.

In a review of the biography for the Canadian Historical Review in December 1988, historian James W. St. G. Walker noted that Hubbard “saw himself as an able and respected municipal politician, not as a representative of or an example to the black community.” Despite being a member of black community organizations such as the Home Service Association and the Musical and Literary Society of Toronto, Hubbard rarely spoke about race, even in private correspondence.

Walker continues, “Hubbard himself never confronted the intriguing contradiction between his personal acceptance and the limitations imposed on most Canadian blacks.” In a rare instance of such reflection, Hubbard noted to his close friend and the first Canadian-born black doctor, Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott (1837-1913): “I have always felt that I am a representative of a race hitherto despised, but given fair opportunity would be able to command esteem.”

Henry recounts in detail how the demographics of Toronto’s black community changed substantially after the First World War with a large influx of immigrants from the British West Indies and migrant workers from the United States. Even the most skilled and educated of this growing population found themselves locked out of professional careers. With a different experience and political perspective, the newer arrivals, according to Henry, were critical of the traditional, native-born Old Line families. Hubbard and Abbott, it was thought, were too conservative. Writing in A History of Blacks in Canada (1981), Walker adds that even when Hubbard was serving as acting mayor, Toronto blacks were barred from many restaurants and hotels—including the Royal York, which didn’t admit blacks until the 1940s.

No such critical perspectives take an ounce away from Hubbard’s many achievements. But, given how outspoken he was about countless other political issues, his silence on matters of race is all the more deafening. They add texture to his character and to our historical understanding of him. Hubbard’s case also illustrates how public commemorations, especially those erected to mark a “first” pioneer who did not always act as we imagine they should have acted, can place our own present-day burdens on those who defined themselves according to their own personal principles, convictions, and foibles. As celebrations of our past, plaques—like the one unveiled this week near the grand house at 660 Broadview where Hubbard resided until his death on April 13, 1935—play an essential role. They connect us to the past by illuminating the characters or events our streets, parks, and community centres are named for. But since they’re not intended to give the whole story, they can act only as a jumping off point, enticing us to explore further and fill in the blank spaces, contradictions, and controversies of history.


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


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