A corner of Toronto that is the birthplace to a Black political icon
Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
The future site of Draper Street, which runs one way from Front Street West to Wellington Street West, first appears on a map in 1833. It didn’t yet have a name or building lots, but it was the start of what has become a carefully preserved district to reflect what Toronto looked like in the late 19th century.
The first houses—Empire-style cottages—were built on Draper Street between 1881 and 1882. These were paid for by Jonathan Mandell, a developer, and designed by Richard Humphries. These early houses are all semi-detached and one-and-a-half storeys. A new phase of building started in 1886 with semi-detached houses built by the firm Smith and Simpson. The final phase was a row of houses built in 1889 on what was a lumberyard for Wagner Ziedler and Company, the firm that, among other things, did the woodwork and speaker’s dais in the new Ontario Parliament buildings at Queen’s Park, which opened in the 1890s.
Draper Street is part of the King and Spadina neighbourhood, which became an industrial centre in the growing city of Toronto. King and Spadina was the heart of the textile and garment industries, a heritage now reflected in some of the remaining industrial buildings and a giant, colourful button and thimble at the corner of Richmond and Spadina. The area also saw early labour agitation in Toronto, most notably from the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union strike in 1931.
Although Draper Street sounds like it fits right in to the textile industry in the neighbourhood, it was actually named for William Henry Draper, a lawyer and local politician who had died in 1877.
Draper isn’t the only politician associated with the street. Lincoln Alexander, Canada’s first Black member of Parliament, was born on Draper Street in 1922. His parents were immigrants from the West Indies and his mother worked as a maid and his father was a railway porter. Alexander’s family moved to the Danforth area when he was young, then spent much of his adult life in Hamilton. As a Black youth in the 1920s and 30s in Toronto, Alexander faced racism and bullying at school, occasionally fighting back with his fists against kids who used racial slurs. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, a branch of the forces that was usually reluctant to accept people of colour. He left in 1945 with an honourable discharge after an incident where a bar in Vancouver refused to serve him because he was Black. He told a superior officer, who declined to intervene. He fought to end discrimination while becoming a lawyer, trained at Osgoode Hall, and later a conservative politician. Not only was he Canada’s first Black MP, elected in 1968, he later became Canada’s first Black cabinet minister, serving as minister for labour. He served as the lieutenant-governor of Ontario from 1985 to 1991 (he was also the first Black person to hold that position). He was named the chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation in 2012. Alexander wrote a memoir in 2006 with writer Herb Shoveller called Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy, apparently advice his mother had given him as a child. He died in 2012 at age 90, at home in Hamilton.
As the neighbourhood around Draper Street changed and industrialized, then turned into a downtown hub in a growing megacity, it never lost many of its original houses. Even as streets around it had the residential neighbourhoods destroyed for development, Draper remained.
Because of this, it was officially named a Heritage Conservation District by the City in 1999. This means that renovations or additions to the houses can’t change the look of the street. The community of Draper Street has developed a parkette, on the site of one of the houses that was demolished in the 1940s. According to the Draper Street blog, it’s where the locals gather for the annual summer solstice party.
It’s also the location of a 2001 plaque commemorating the street’s designation as a heritage district.
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