Not all archives and heritage groups have materials donated that showcase the lives of black families in Ontario. It can be very hard to find family photos, scrapbooks, letters, and papers related to marginalized communities and people of colour.
We are thankful that some families have shared their materials with us. One example is Rick Bell, who donated his family's materials to Brock University in St Catharines.
Rick Bell was born in Niagara Falls, and is notable for becoming Niagara’s first black professional firefighter in 1979.
Bell said it would have been impossible for him to have done so just decades earlier. He’s heard the story of a black firefighter returning from the Korean War in 1953 and walking into a fire station in St Catharines to apply for a job.
When he went in they laughed him out of the place,” said Bell. “They said ‘we don’t hire black people.’"
His dad, Richard, also felt the sting of racism that existed in Niagara despite the region’s rich black history. After he was promoted to foreman at the old Interlake Tissue Mills paper plant in the 1950s, men who’d worked alongside him quit rather than work for a black man.
About the same time, Richard Bell looked at having a new house built on Geneva Street as St Catharines’ north end was being developed. The neighbours signed a petition against the family living there.
“They didn’t want any black people,” said the younger Bell.
Rick Bell discovered this collection of family photos and documents when renovations were being done on his mother’s home in St Catharines. The materials were in steamer boxes in the attic. The family found materials relating to the Bell, Tyrell, and Sloman families, descendants of former slaves who traveled to Canada during the American Civil War.
Generations of Bells and Tyrells lived in St Catharines, and were involved in coal and ice delivery, and jewelry and watch-making. The Slomans lived near London, Ont.
The collection includes photos dating back in some cases to the late 1800s, marriage certificates, and tithing receipts dating to 1874 from St Catharines' British Methodist Episcopal Church.
Many of the pictures from the late 19th and early 20th century are posed portraits of Bell and Sloman family members in formal wear - long dresses, corsets, nice hats, suits and ties, and even the robes of a lawyer or priest.
These pictures teach us about the economic circumstances of these families at the time: rich enough to afford nice clothes and professional photos. One photo shows a painted backdrop of Niagara Falls in the background, which could mean the photographer was from the area.
Not all of the photos have dates and names, so we can't be sure when they were made or which family members are in them. We use clues about the production of the photographs to make our best guess: for example, all of the tintype photographs - images made on pieces of iron using chemicals that etched right into the metal - are probably from the 1860s to 1900s, because that was when the technique was most popular.
Another clue is the name of the photographer and the location of his studio written on the photo frame: we know that this man owned his studio in Lucan for only five years, from 1877-1882.
Later photos are family snapshots, often outdoors in gardens and forests, which were probably made with smaller handheld cameras. The family probably owned its own camera or cameras to take these pictures with.
There are also portraits taken in studios from the 20th century, such as this one of Iris Sloman, but these are usually formal pictures taken for the same reasons we'd take them now: graduation, a milestone birthday, marriage, and other celebrations.
A photo of Iris Sloman on the beach with friends shows us how different photo-taking became over the years: more casual and candid, and not afraid of getting sand in an expensive piece of equipment!
We have pictures of family members such as Charles Bell at both work and play: here, on a horse-drawn wagon, running his ice delivery business; and here, wearing a suit for the marriage of his son Richard.