The early development of Fort William and Port Arthur saw the influx of people from different backgrounds drawn to the economic promise of the Lakehead’s rich natural resources. Among these were a small group of Canadians of African descent, who were an integral part of the social landscape of early Thunder Bay. While historical resources on these families and individuals are not extensive, their diverse stories merit further examination.

Julia Ann Roy

Perhaps the most well-known among this group was Julia Ann Roy, who escaped to Canada from slavery in the United States during the 1850s. While many escaped enslaved people returned across the border after the close of the Civil War, many others stayed including Julia, who in 1870 was living in Grey County in Southern Ontario with her family. It was 1874 when she moved to Prince Arthur’s Landing with her two grandchildren as well as eight Washington children with unknown association. Within several years she was operating a brothel on the corner of Elgin and Cumberland on McVicar Creek. Her main clientele was for the many railroad workers who populated the area at the time, a business that was generally tolerated by town officials for pragmatic reasons, apart from occasional arrests and fines. 

Julia lived with her grandchildren Joseph and Elizabeth as well as two other families whose connection are unknown.

 

Lizzie Washington

Julia’s granddaughter, 17 year old Lizzie Washington, was involved in an incident in 1882 that was no doubt indicative of how early Black residents of Thunder Bay encountered the law. When a small group of inebriated CPR employees made themselves at home in Julia’s house, a confrontation developed and one threatened Lizzie, who responded by shooting him dead. Julia was able to hire lawyers who made a compelling case for self defense. Nonetheless, a jury which included John McIntyre, John McKellar and other high-profile citizens, convicted Lizzie who was then sent to Kingston Penitentiary for 5 years.

Hiram T. Scurry and Martha Scurry

Hiram Scurry was also a restaurateur and owned the Algoma Restaurant, as well as an occasional musician, performing at a variety of hotels and social functions. Julia was a close associate of Hiram T. Scurry, also an escaped from enslavement who had come from Virginia, and lived in Prince Arthur’s Landing with his wife, Martha. He was described in 1882 by the Weekly Herald as the town’s ‘favourite tonsorial artist’, (an early name for barbers). His son, Albert, born in 1877, was most likely the first Black child born at the Lakehead. Hiram, Martha and their family made their way to Winnipeg, Manitoba and to Vancouver, British Columbia where they eventually settled, and Hiram continued his barber business, alongside his wife. 

What shall we do to get shaved since the popular H.T. Scurry has left tonsorial parlors, so long occupied by him in P.A. Laning. The Winnipeg fever has seized him and hereafter he will sojourn in that benighted region.

Hiram left the Lakehead in 1881 with a great reputation.

H.T. Scurry’s advertisement in the Thunder Bay Sentinel used in the 1876.

 

Charles ‘Doc’ Baker and Annie Baker

Charles ‘Doc’ Baker was born in Virginia in 1815 and much like the others, he escaped to Canada sometime during the 1850s eventually settling in the Fort William Town Plot.  He lived in Fort William with his wife Annie, he was a man of many talents and had a variety of professions including being a cook, restaurant keeper, herb doctor and ran the town’s skating rink. In 1885 the Weekly Herald described the rink as spacious, with Baker working hard to keep it in good condition, with a warm and cozy dressing room.

Like Lizzie Washington, Baker too had an unfortunate encounter with the law as recounted in the Sentinel in 1876. A group of drunken railroad workers entered his saloon and proceeded to drink a great deal more. When one of them ended up dead after leaving, rumours of poisoning floated about and Baker was imprisoned, before being released from lack of evidence. Like with Lizzie, It can only speculated the role race played in his treatment.

Charles, his wife Annie and their daughter Annie in the 1881 Census.

If you have stories and artifacts you are willing to donate to ensure our Museum’s collection adequately documents the experience of Black Canadians in Thunder Bay’s history please reach out to us at [email protected]

Much more about Julia Ann Roy and Lizzie Washington can be read in ‘Wild on the Superior Frontier’ by James R. Stevens and all others ‘Biographical Dictionary and History of Victorian Thunder Bay (1850-1901)’ by Brent Scollie.

For information about modern Black experiences in Thunder Bay, check out our lecture Black Business: An Evening with Local Black Women that are leaders in Business from 2021.