This Historicist instalment originally appeared on February 14, 2009.
On the Roof of Old City Hall, July 14, 1898. Hubbard is third from the bottom right. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1268, Series 1317, Item 216. Image courtesy of Heritage Toronto.
In 2008, a local resident discovered that the historical plaque near 660 Broadview Avenue—erected 30 years ago by the Toronto Historical Board to honour William Peyton Hubbard, the city’s first municipal politician of African descent—was damaged. They returned the pieces to Heritage Toronto, which unveiled a replacement marker in February 2009 with a ceremony 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. And his story offers insight into the ways the lives of prominent citizens can become entangled with the politics of commemoration.
There is a common narrative shared between them all. The Toronto-born son of a Virginian freed slave, Hubbard worked for 16 years as a cake baker before becoming a cab driver. As he was driving one wintry night, he saved another cab from nearly plummeting into the Don River. A friendship blossomed between Hubbard and the grateful occupant of that cab, newspaperman George Brown, who later encouraged him to seek elected office at the age of 51. He was narrowly defeated in the municipal election of 1893, but made a strong impression with the public and the press. In 1894, Hubbard was elected alderman, the first of 14 consecutive (and 15 total) terms in office. Over the course of his career, he also served on the Board of Control from 1898 and served as acting mayor on a number of occasions.
The present day is always exerting pressure in public commemoration. As Thomas Symons, then-chair of the Canadian Historic Sites and Monuments Board, said in the introduction to his The Place of History (1997): “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 it’s an act that celebrates more than it engages critiques or controversies surrounding historical questions. Looking at a few instances of public commemoration of Hubbard—each of which highlight different points of emphasis—we can see how each reveals or obscures different aspects of character and gain a fuller picture of Hubbard.