Making a Living: African Canadian Workers in London, Ontario, 1861-1901

By Adams, Tracey | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Making a Living: African Canadian Workers in London, Ontario, 1861-1901


Adams, Tracey, Labour/Le Travail


THERE IS A GROWING BODY of research on African Canadians in the 19th century that touches on their experiences in the workforce. Nonetheless, the literature has been largely silent on how labour market opportunities for African Canadians altered over time and, in particular, how members of this community fared with the slow, but nonetheless dramatic, rise of an industrial-capitalist economy. This study uses census data to explore the occupational experiences of African Canadians living in London, Ontario, between 1861 and 1901. Findings suggest that labour market opportunities were better for men of African origins around mid-century but declined noticeably in the succeeding years. African Canadians of both genders were largely excluded from growth areas in the economy, and their labour was highly concentrated in a narrow range of low-skill jobs. Although there is limited evidence of upward occupational mobility over time for some, and a slight broadening of occupational opportunities by 1901, African Canadian men and women were disadvantaged compared to their white counterparts.

A L'HEURE ACTUELLE, on fait davantage de recherche sur les Canadiens d'origine africaine au 19e siecle qui touche a leur experience au travail. Neanmoins, la documentation traite rarement la facon dont les possibilites sur le marche du travail ont change pour les Canadiens d'origine africaine et, en particulier, la facon dont les membres de cette communaute ont reussi dans une economie industrielle et capitaliste en croissance lente, mais toutefois dramatique. Cette etude se sert des donnees du recensement pour explorer l'experience professionnelle des Canadiens d'origine africaine qui vivent a London, Ontario, entre 1861 et 1901. Les resultats suggerent que les possibilites sur le marche du travail etaient meilleures pour les homes d'origine africaine au milieu du siecle mais ont diminue de facon remarquable dans les annees subsequentes. La plupart des Canadiens d'origine africaine des deux sexes n'ont pas profite de la croissance economique et leur travail s'est hautement concentre sur une gamme etroite d'emplois peu specialises. Bien qu'il y ait quelque preuve de mobilite professionnelle ascendante et un leger elargissement de possibilites d'emploi en 1901, les femmes et les hommes canadiens d'origine africaine ont ete desavantages par rapport a leurs homologues blancs.

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IN THE EARLY 1830s, TWO African American brothers--A. B. and Alfred T. Jones--managed to extricate themselves from slavery in Madison County, Kentucky. The tale of how they did so is a little murky, but it appears that their older brother was able to arrange his freedom with his millwright owner who continued to employ him, and this allowed him to earn enough to purchase his two younger brothers from a different slave owner. Things seemed to go awry at the last minute, but the brothers managed to flee using forged passes. They eventually made their way to Canada where, they had heard, "colored men were free." (1) They first travelled to St. Catharines, but soon after settled in what is now London, Ontario. Some twenty years later, in the mid-1850s, American travelers to London intent on documenting the fate of former slaves interviewed the two Jones brothers, whose accomplishments were impressive. Arriving in London with no money and poor literacy skills, the brothers had worked in a variety of capacities. By the mid-1850s, both owned fine brick homes and businesses. A. T. Jones had established a "New Fruit Store" by the late 1840s, and in the 1850s, he was the owner of a successful apothecary. Not only was he literate, but one 1850s traveler found him hard at work learning Latin, so that he could fill doctors' prescriptions. (2) He was married and the father of eight children, all of whom attended an integrated school. A. B. Jones also established a family, and he was listed as a "grocer" in the 1856 London directory. From all accounts, he was a successful businessman and reportedly owned a considerable amount of property including a building with two stores and several lots near the train depot. …

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