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Books on Canadian Black History

By Kobo • February 02, 2024Big Ideas in Books

Explore Canadian Black History from the country's earliest days to our present moment.

In the scope of Black History, Canada is often represented only as the terminus of the Underground Railroad, a finish line in the flight from slavery. But Canadian Black history is made of many other facets, not the least of which includes Canada's own struggles with social inequality. Here we present many points of entry into Canadian Black History, including stories from the world of sports and politics, works of historical research, and memoirs by contemporary Black Canadian writers.

They Call Me George: The Untold Story of The Black Train Porters by Cecil Foster

Several years before the award-winning TV show The Porter dramatized the stories of railway porters working on Canadian rail lines, novelist Cecil Foster penned this history about a hitherto little-known aspect of Black life.

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The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom by William Still

William Still was a "conductor" for the Underground Railroad, the covert network of resistors against slavery who smuggled enslaved people out of the American South, often to Canada. Here are the letters and notes Still collected during his years spent serving the cause of freedom.

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In the Black: My Life by B. Denham Jolly

B. Denham Jolly was born in Jamaica and studied at several Canadian universities, graduating in 1960 with a degree in science. This is his story about building a career in media in Canada, including the founding of seminal Toronto radio station FLOW 93.5 in 2001.

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Shut Out: The Game That Did Not Love Me Black by Bernie Saunders with Barry Meisel

Born in 1956, Bernie Saunders was the 5th Black player ever in the NHL, and he was met with derision and mockery from not only opponents and spectators, but even coaches and his own teammates. This memoir is his account of how he struggled to make it in the NHL, despite the obstructions other threw in his way.

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Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki

This biographical picture book tells the story of Canadian activist Viola Desmond, who sparked civil rights action in 1946 Nova Scotia. During a time of institutionalized segregation, she was one of the leaders of change-focused activism in Canada.

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Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times by Graham Reynolds and Wanda Robson

Many Canadians know the story of Rosa Parks, but too few know about Viola Desmond’s 1946 arrest for refusing to vacate the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre. In this slim volume historian Graham Reynolds along with Desmond’s sister Wanda Robson tell the story of a bold and pioneering life that made an impact on business and politics as well as the history of Canadian social justice.

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Steal Away Home: One Woman's Epic Flight to Freedom — And Her Long Road Back to the South by Karolyn Smardz Frost

Historian Karolyn Smardz Frost tells the story of Cecelia Reynolds, a fifteen-year-old girl who escaped slavery in Kentucky, leaving behind her family and everyone she knew, to come to Toronto. After the US Civil War Cecelia returns to the south to be reunited with her family and to establish a complicated relationship with the woman whom she once called her mistress.

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The Hanging Of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal by Afua Cooper

Poet and historian Afua Cooper dismantles the myth of a peaceful and slave-free Canada in this deeply-researched book about Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Portuguese-born enslaved Black woman who was convicted of burning down a part of Montreal in 1734.

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"Go To School, You’re A Little Black Boy": A Memoir by Lincoln M. Alexander

This memoir by The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander, Canada’s first Black member of Parliament, tells the story of his exemplary life in his own words, offering a singular perspective on Black Canadian life in the 20th century.

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Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada by Lawrence Hill

The Book of Negroes novelist turns his focus to his own life in this memoir of growing up biracial in a white Ontario suburb. Hill mixes pieces of his personal experiences and family history with a series of interviews with mixed-race Canadians, resulting in a rich and thought-provoking book on the concept of race in contemporary Canada.

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A Sporting Chance: Achievements of African-Canadian Athletes by William Humber

This short volume covers the history of Black athletes in Canada, conveying the culture surrounding sports and athletes of colour from the early days of popular amateur sports to the present professional landscape.

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Last Days in Africville by Dorothy Perkyns

Africville was a Black community that was demolished in the mid-20th century. This short novel about a 12-year old girl living in Africville paints a portrait of the community's tragic and needless end.

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Africa’s Children: A History of Blacks in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia by Sharon Robart-Johnson

Historian Sharon Robart-Johnson chronicles the lives of Black Canadians in a Nova Scotia community: from the first group of enslaved Africans who arrived with Loyalist enslavers to the free Black Loyalists who migrated from the vibrantly anti-monarchical American colonies further south.

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Black Like Who?: Writing Black Canada by Rinaldo Walcott

Rinaldo Walcott’s essays on a variety of aspects of culture—from sports to music to social movements—are all rooted in the notion that Canadian blackness is at once too diverse to be contained under one definition, and at the same time is distinct from American blackness.

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Emancipation Day: Celebrating Freedom in Canada by Natasha L. Henry

As part of the British Commonwealth, Canada was one of the countries affected by the Emancipation Act of 1834. In this detailed history, Black scholar Natasha L. Henry discusses the ways, past and present, Canadians have celebrated the anniversary of the day it was passed.

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