A plate inspired by the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a 19th century black doll are among items now on display in a new exhibit at City Hall, dug from under where Toronto’s new courthouse will one day stand.
These artifacts are among tens of thousands of historic objects uncovered at the downtown dig site near Dundas St. W. and University Ave. — the result of an almost year-long excavation started in 2015 by Infrastructure Ontario — that range from old nail polish bottles to scraps of wallpaper to children’s toys.
Opened earlier this week, the exhibit features a selection of these finds that highlight Toronto’s black history. The display is the first installment in a series, set to run in six-month stints over the next five years, with the goal of commemorating different cultures that make up Toronto’s heritage.
A joint statement issued by the city and Infrastructure Ontario — who are collaborating on the rotating exhibits — said the downtown archaeological dig gives an “unprecedented level of insight” into the Toronto’s past, because of the massive quantity and quality of what was found there.
“This is like the archaeological signature of everyday folk, which is quite rare in archaeology across North America, but is extremely rare in archaeology both in the city of Toronto and in Ontario,” said Holly Martelle, principal archaeologist at Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants, who worked on the dig.
The area was once a largely immigrant neighbourhood that was once called “the Ward” or St. John’s Ward.
The exhibit “tells the story both of ordinary lives in the Ward as well as reflecting on the black experience in Toronto going back to the 1850s and later,” said Wayne Reeves, chief curator of City of Toronto Museums.
Author Karolyn Smardz Frost launched her book Steal Away Home at the exhibit’s opening. It tells the story of Cecelia Jane Reynolds who fled to Toronto as teenager to escape slavery in the United States.
While immersed in nearly a decade of research about Reynolds’ life, Smardz Frost learned that the courthouse site dig would uncover the former home of the woman she’d been dedicated to learning so much about.
Smardz Frost believes the new exhibit will help people understand the story behind the city they know today.
“What this does is it makes real, in a visible sense, to people the kind of lifestyle people lived, some of the hardships they underwent too, but also the contributions they made to Toronto,” she said.
Ehren Cory, Divisional President at Infrastructure Ontario, said the rest of the findings from the dig — since not all tens of thousands of them will make it on display — are being stored in a warehouse where they are being catalogued and, in some cases, repaired.
Cory said once the rotating exhibits at City Hall wrap up, some artifacts will be returned to the new courthouse when it’s completed to commemorate the location’s heritage. For those that don’t end up there, he said, the process of figuring out the best long-term home for them is still ongoing.
Nikki Clarke, president of the Ontario Black History Society said she and her colleagues offered feedback on artifacts found prior to the exhibit’s launch. “I think it’s amazing we can have this exhibit to really exemplify the multiculturalism of this city,” she said.
Clarke said that once the items are no longer housed at city hall, she’s hopeful for the possibility of having a black museum in Toronto, where these objects can be housed permanently and this history can continue to be remembered.
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