William Peyton Hubbard: Toronto’s first Black alderman

William Peyton Hubbard in 1907

ZP reprints today an article by Kevin Plummer, a civic historian for “Torontoist” on-line, dating from February 2009:

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Last year, a local resident discovered that the historical plaque near 660 Broadview Avenue—erected thirty years ago by the Toronto Historical Board to honour William Peyton Hubbard, Toronto’s first Black municipal politician—was damaged. He returned the pieces to Heritage Toronto, who unveiled a replacement marker this week 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.
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Hubbard’s story offers insight into the ways the lives of prominent citizens can become entangled with the politics of commemoration;  and there is a common narrative shared among them all…
William Peyton Hubbard was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1842.
The Canadian-born son of a Virginian freed slave, Hubbard worked for sixteen years as a cake baker after graduating from the Toronto Model School. He then became a cab driver. As he was driving one wintry night, he saved another cab from plummeting into the Don River. A friendship blossomed between Hubbard and the grateful occupant of that cab – it was newspaperman George Brown. Brown encouraged him to seek elected office at the age of 51, and though Hubbard was narrowly defeated in the municipal election of 1893, still he had made a strong impression with the public and the press. In 1894, he was elected alderman – his first of fourteen consecutive (and fifteen total) terms in office. Over the course of his career, Hubbard served also on the Board of Control from 1898, and even as acting mayor on more than one occasion.
City of Toronto Archives_photograph from July of 1898_On the roof of Old_then the New_City Hall at Queen and Bay_William Peyton Hubbard is third from right in the bottom row.

City of Toronto Archives_photograph from July of 1898_On the roof of Old_then the New_City Hall at Queen and Bay_William Peyton Hubbard is third from right in the bottom row.

Now, in the 21st century, there is always pressure exerted for public commemorations. As Thomas Symons, chair of the Canadian Historic Sites and Monuments Board back in 1997, said: “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 this becomes an act that celebrates more than  engaging critiques or controversies surrounding historical questions. Looking at a few instances of public commemoration of William Peyton Hubbard—each of which highlights different points of emphasis—we can see how each reveals, or obscures, various aspects of his character;  and so we gain a fuller picture of the man.
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The November 1913 retirement ceremony for William Peyton Hubbard’s life in politics 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 also fought against 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, whom colleagues dubbed the “Cicero of the Council.” While he attacked anyone verbally – colleagues included – who was guilty of misconduct, Hubbard always did his research to ensure that the evidence supported his accusations. An outspoken nature, and frank honesty—which made for good newspaper copy, too — ensured that Hubbard developed a positive relationship with the press, and this 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 being appointed by city councillors. For his efforts, Hubbard was re-elected to the Board of Control until 1908 by ever-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 in the Union of Canadian Municipalities and the Ontario Municipal Association.
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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 twentieth century: whether hydro-electric power ought to be developed and operated by private interests or under public control. Working with Adam Beck and the Ontario Hydro-Electric Power Commission, Hubbard eventually secured the legislation necessary to allow Toronto to operate a public electrical grid. Ironically, his tireless efforts towards this cause took him away from his other aldermanic duties, leading to his electoral defeat in 1908. Adam Beck, later knighted for his part in promoting public electric power, even made a surprise appearance at Hubbard’s 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 new publicly-owned electric power system.
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In recalling Hubbard’s achievements in public office up until retirement, newspaper accounts made no mention at all of his race.
This is 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 racial 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 downplaying why Hubbard achieving what he did when he did is all the more remarkable.
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Although genuine concern for Toronto’s Black community existed in in the city, that sentiment could also be 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 (published in 1981). On the other hand, a sparse population meant that this community was not seen as threatening to the dominant social order. Hubbard was therefore deftly able to 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 during his youth at the highly respected Toronto Model School, and through 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.
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By the time Hubbard was commemorated with a historical plaque in 1979, a number of newspaper articles had re-interpreted his story through the prism of Multiculturalism. The plaque’s text re-assessed 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 these were 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—do not place Hubbard into the broader critical context of Black politics in Toronto.
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In a review of Hubbard’s biography for the Canadian Historical Review in December 1988, historian James W. St. G. Walker notes 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, he 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.”
Author 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, plus 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.
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These critical perspectives take not 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. It adds 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 he 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 are not intended to give the whole story, they can act only as a jumping off point, enticing us to explore further, and to try to fill in the blank spaces, contradictions, and controversies of our city’s history.
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