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Windsor-Essex has a rich history of Black Canadians who made their way to our area via the Underground Railroad. Many of them, and their descendants, went on to make important contributions to the spiritual, cultural, social, educational, political, and economic landscape of our region and our country. 

Read some of their stories here, as well as some from other notable Canadians who have gone above and beyond to help advance the cause of greater equity:

Carrie Best
Carrie Best
An intelligent child, Best wrote her first poems at the age of four and often submitted her opinions in letters to the editors of local newspapers as a teenager. Unhappy with the racial stereotypes portrayed in popular books and local culture, Best sought out the work of African-American poets and historians.

In December 1941, Carrie Best heard that several high school girls had been removed by force from the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. The Black teens had attempted to sit in the “white only” section. Best was outraged. She vigorously argued against the racist policy to the Roseland Theatre’s owner, Norman Mason, in person and by letter, but her efforts were unsuccessful. 

A few days later, the 38-year-old and her son, Calbert, attempted to purchase tickets for the main floor of the theatre. The cashier issued tickets for the balcony, the area reserved for Black patrons. Leaving the tickets on the counter, the mother and son walked into the auditorium. When the assistant manager demanded that they leave, the Bests refused, and the police were called. Roughly hoisted from her seat by the officer, Best and her son were charged with disturbing the peace, convicted and fined. Best could now take legal action against the theatre.

Filing a civil lawsuit that specified racial discrimination, Best claimed damages for assault and battery, damage to her coat and breach of contract. Mason and the Roseland Theatre Company Ltd. claimed that the Bests were trespassers without tickets. The case, heard on 12 May 1942, failed: the proprietor’s right to exclude anyone won out over the bigger issue of racism. The judge not only ignored the discrimination but also ordered Best to pay the defendant’s costs.

In 1946, she and her son, Calbert, founded The Clarion, one of the first Nova Scotia newspapers owned and published by Black Canadians. The Clarion reported on sports, news, social activities and other significant events. For a decade, The Clarion covered many important issues and advocated for Black rights. 

While operating her newspaper, Carrie Best took on another challenge. Unable to find radio programming to her liking, Best yearned for something soothing and inspiring. She solved the problem by broadcasting her own program, The Quiet Corner, which debuted in 1952, with Best at the microphone. The radio show ran for 12 years featuring classical and religious music segments, while Best entertained fans by reading the works of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. 

Carrie Best

Excerpts are taken from

Kay Livingstone
Kay Livingstone
Kathleen Kay Livingstone founded the Canadian Negro Women’s Association in 1951 and organized the first National Congress of Black Women in 1973. An established radio broadcaster and actor, Livingstone was the first Black woman to host her own radio show, “The Kay Livingstone Show,” which celebrated traditions and customs of Black cultures around the world.

Livingstone also devoted a great deal of her life and energy to social activism and organizing.  Her tireless work to encourage a national discussion around the position of racialized people in society, particularly Black women, led Livingstone to coin the term visible minority in 1975.

Livingstone was designated a Person of National Historic Significance by the Canadian government in 2011. In November 2017, the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada erected a plaque dedicated to Livingstone at a park on Bedford Park Avenue in Toronto. The following year, during Black History Month, Canada Post released a stamp depicting Kay Livingstone.

Excerpts are taken from

Jean Augustine
Jean Augustine
In 1993, Jean Augustine became the first Black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada and the first Black female cabinet member. She served as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, and as secretary of state and minister of state for multiculturalism and the status of women. 

Augustine began her career as a teacher and elementary school principal before moving into politics. 

As an MP she introduced a motion, which passed unanimously, to have February proclaimed Black History Month in Canada. 

“I was an educator.… I recognized that the classroom curriculum was saying very little about African Canadians. The same thing was done to Indigenous peoples — if there was any reference, it was either in the footnote or as a sideline. Black Canadians were not part of the script and were not shown contributing to Canadian society.”

In 2017, she was given an honorary degree from the University of Windsor for her outstanding contributions to social justice. We owe a great deal to the work of Jean Augustine.

Fred Thomas
Fred Thomas
Fred Thomas, a multi-sport, super-star athlete, was an impressive and accomplished Windsorite. Excelling in basketball, baseball, and football, Thomas’ contributions to Canadian athletics not only made him a local hero, but he was posthumously honoured on the national stage when he was inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.

Learn more about “Fabulous Freddie” Thomas and see him in action by watching this short film featured on TSN.

Ed Dwight
Ed Dwight
From a young age, Ed Dwight had a love of and passion for art. Born in Kansas City, Kansas to a father that wanted him to pursue engineering, art took a back seat in Ed’s life. He joined the United States Air Force in 1953 in pursuit of another dream to fly jet airplanes. In 1957, he received a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Arizona State University, and later completed Test Pilot training, before being chosen to become the first African American candidate for astronaut trainee in 1962. Ed trained and performed test pilot duties for 4 years, before leaving the Air Force in 1966; regrettably never making it to space. Over the next decade, Ed showed his myriad of talents as a Systems Engineer for IBM, a restauranteur in Denver, and operating a real estate development & construction company before tapping into his true gift – life as an artist.

In 1974, to perfect his skills in the art world, Ed went back to school to pursue this lifelong passion of being an artist. He attended The University of Denver, graduating in 1978 with a Master of Fine Arts, and gained a reputation as a sculptor. Over his 40-year career, Ed Dwight has created over 130 large scale memorial installations one of which is located right here in Windsor.
(excerpts from

Ed Dwight

Tower of Freedom (Civic Esplanade, Windsor, ON) created by sculptor Ed Dwight, honours the flight of American slaves into freedom on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad is bi-nationally commemorated by two monuments representing its final stops. The Windsor monument depicts the refugees' arrival into Canada and their overwhelming emotion upon encountering freedom. The monument features four life-size bronze figures on the south side of a granite monolith: Two women with a baby and a man standing behind with his arms outstretched in praise. On the north side of the monolith, a young girl holds a rag doll and looks back across the river. The figures rest on a ten-by-ten-foot base which will become home to the newly worded bronze historic plaque. The monolith is twenty-two feet in height and is visible from its sister monument (The Gateway to Freedom) in Hart Plaza. The names of local citizens and places of significance to the Underground Railroad movement appear on the monument along with a bronze Canadian flag and the flame of freedom. You can visit the Tower of Freedom in downtown Windsor at the Civic Esplanade. (taken from

Ed Dwight 

Elijah McCoy
Elijah McCoy
Born in Colchester, Ontario, to parents who had escaped from slavery in Kentucky and arrived in Canada via the Underground Railroad, Elijah McCoy showed an early interest in machines and tools and an aptitude for mechanics. At a time when it was difficult for Black people to obtain training in the United States, his parents sent him to Edinburgh, Scotland to study mechanical engineering.

Upon his return to North America, he took a job as a fireman with the railroad in Michigan. The “fireman” was the person who shovelled the coal to power the locomotive and who lubricated the moving parts during frequent stops. Elijah soon saw that he could put his knowledge and education to work by improving this lubricating process. He developed and patented a particular type of lubricating cup that dripped oil onto the moving parts of a train while it was in motion. While the origin of the expression is probably somewhat older, it is said that buyers of the lubricating oil cup asked specifically for the “Real McCoy” because it was extremely reliable and they wanted no substitutes.

That was just one of the products he developed and patented. For example, in response to his wife’s desire for an easier way to iron clothes, he invented and patented the portable ironing board.

Elijah McCoy held more than 50 patents, not just in Canada and the U.S. but also in France, Austria, Germany, Great Britain and Russia.


Leslie McCurdy
Leslie McCurdy is a Windsor born actor, dancer, singer, writer, playwright and mentor whose work has captivated audiences across the world. McCurdy obtained an honours BFA in dance at the University of Michigan. She then served as a choreographer and teaching assistant at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She has appeared in numerous film, television and theatre productions such as The Ides of March, Detroit 187, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Two Trains Running, Tommy, and Cabaret. She is best known as a playwright and actress having written and performed three one woman plays: The Spirit of Harriet Tubman, Things My Fore-Sisters Saw, and Lady Ain’t Singing No Blues. Her most famous play, The Spirit of Harriet Tubman, is celebrating 25 years of touring and was a finalist for a Canadian Chalmers Award for Best New Play for Young Audiences. She has won numerous awards including 2017 Vigor International Award, 2014 Mayor’s Awards for "Artist of the Year" (Windsor, ON) and 2000 Mayor’s Award for"Outstanding Performing Artist” (Windsor, ON). Leslie McCurdy comes from several generations of civil rights activists, including her father, teacher and politician, Dr. Howard McCurdy. Both she and her family have made significant contributions to our local and national history.

To learn more about Leslie McCurdy visit her website: link

Leslie McCurdy is one of many local artists shaping the Windsor-Essex community. So many talented individuals are working and creating around us. Follow the links below to learn more!

Portia White (1911-1968)
Portia White was born in Truro, Nova Scotia, the third of 13 children. Portia White began singing in her father’s Halifax church choir under her mother’s direction at age six. By the age of eight, she was singing the soprano parts from the opera Lucia de Lammermoor. She was determined to become a professional singer and walked 10 miles a week for music lessons. White started her teacher training at Dalhousie UniversityExternal link in 1929. After graduating, she became a schoolteacher in Black Nova Scotian communities such as AfricvilleExternal link and Lucasville. She continued to support her musical career by teaching and eventually made her professional debut in Toronto. Soon afterwards, she performed in New York City to rave reviews. She was considered one of the best classical singers of the 20th century. Her voice was described by one critic as “a gift from heaven.” Portia White went on to international success, performing more than 100 concerts, including a command performance before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Angela James
Angela James
Angela James is a Black female hockey player who became known as “The Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey” by leading Team Canada to four World Championships. Toronto-based rapper and poet Keysha Freshh tells her inspiring story in this videoExternal link

Wilfred "Boomer" Harding and the “Chatham Coloured All-Stars”
(August 6, 1915 - September 14, 1991)
The “Chatham Coloured All-Stars”, a baseball team from Chatham, Ontario became the first Black team to win a provincial Ontario Baseball Amateur Association championship in 1934.

Wilfred “Boomer” Harding joined the “Chatham Coloured All-Stars” while still a teenager, helping them to win the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association Intermediate B championship in 1934. ‘Boomer’, as he was known in the community, was an all-round athlete who not only excelled in baseball, but numerous other sports throughout his life. He was a talented athlete since his high school years at Chatham Vocational High School, where he won numerous Western Ontario Secondary School Association (WOSSA) titles for pole vaulting, hockey, basketball, and soccer. During World War II, Boomer joined the Canadian Armed Forces, and served overseas. During his time with the army, he competed in athletic events, such as pole vaulting, and he also participated in a travelling hockey team intended to entertain Canadian soldiers. After returning from the war, Boomer had a tryout with the International Amateur Hockey League, earning a spot in 1946 with the Windsor Staffords, a Detroit Red Wings farm team. He was the first black player in that league (and was the first black player to skate at the Red Wings’ arena, the Olympia) at a time when only a few black players were in advanced hockey.

Source: Breaking the Colour Barrier, a partnership between the Harding family, the University of Windsor's Department of History, the Leddy Library’s Centre for Digital Scholarship, and the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame.

Wilfred "Boomer" Harding
Wilfred "Boomer" Harding

Willie O’Ree (October 15, 1935- present)
Willie O’Ree, born in Fredericton, NS, broke the colour barrier for professional hockey by being the first Black player in the NHL. He played 45 games in the NHL and then 22 years of minor league hockey. Since 1994, Willie O’Ree has been the NHL’s diversity ambassador. One of the programs O’Ree is involved with is Hockey Is for Everyone, an initiative that seeks to use the game of hockey to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities. He was elected to the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, and in 2005, was named to the Order of New Brunswick. In 2006, O’Ree was added to the Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame. In 2008, Willie O’Ree received the Order of Canada, the highest civilian award given to a Canadian Citizen. 

Willie O'Ree's No. 22 Boston jersey was retired on Feb.18 before a Bruins home game against New Jersey. As a way to honour him and celebrate Black History Month, some NHL players are wearing a custom skate designed by Bauer featuring his likeness and favourite phrase, “All I needed was the opportunity”.

“There’s a lot of work to be done yet. There’s still a lot of boys and girls out there that need the opportunity to play, and we’ve got to give them that opportunity. You never know, they may make history.” ~ Willie O’Ree 

Willie O’Ree
Willie O’Ree

Frieda (Parker) Steele (2nd from the left)
The daughter of Alton and Evelyn Parker, Freida Steele made numerous contributions to the community.  Shortly before she graduated from Hotel Dieu Hospital (Windsor Regional Hospital) in nursing, Black Canadian women were barred from attending nursing school.  As a result of this discrimination, the case was taken to the Ontario Human Rights Commission and in 1948 Colleen L. Campbell and Marian V. Overton became the first Black women to graduate from Hotel Dieu.  It was not long after, in 1950, that Freida Steele and her nursing colleague Cecile Wright would graduate.

Dr. Eugenia Duodu Addy
Dr. Eugenia Duodu Addy is the CEO of Visions of Science Network for Learning, a charitable organization that empowers youth from low-income communities through meaningful engagement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Born in Canada to Ghanaian parents, she grew up in Toronto Community Housing in the west end of the city, a single child in a single-parent household. As a child she enjoyed watching and learning from science focused tv programs such as The Magic School Bus and Bill Nye The Science Guy. Addy was a curious youth and filled her desire for learning by doing science experiments at home when they were not available to her at school. In high school, even though she had excellent grades, Duodu was told that she should opt for the applied (non-academic) stream. Despite this, she was encouraged to keep pursuing her interests by her mother and her science teachers. She continued to develop her passion for science and eventually obtained a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Toronto. Currently, as the CEO of Visions of Science, she leads the organization’s $1-million annual budget, a small salaried staff and 120 volunteers offering support in STEM to 1,500 students from 29 communities across Ontario.

Desmond Cole
Desmond Cole
Desmond is a Canadian journalist, activist, author, and broadcaster who lives in Toronto, Ontario. Cole was born in Red Deer, Alberta and grew up in Oshawa, Ontario. Cole works as an activist and freelance journalist in Toronto. He has written extensively about the experiences of Black Canadians and continues to document social justice issues in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Toronto Star, Toronto Life, Walrus, VICE, NOW Magazine, Torontoist, and Ethnic Aisle. His first book, The Skin We're In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, was released in January 2020 and became the bestselling Canadian book that year.

Did you know that there is a documentary by Charles Officer following Cole as he researches his book exploring what it means to be Black in 21st century Canada? 

Desmond Cole

Desmond Cole

Henry and Mary Bibb
Henry and Mary Bibb came to Sandwich following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and established the Voice of the Fugitive newspaper on January 1,1851, which was the first Black newspaper in Ontario. Both Mary and Henry were anti-slavery activists and were founding directors of the Refugee Home Society which assisted freedom seekers in establishing their new lives in freedom. It was in 2002 that the Bibbs were recognized as Persons of National Historic Significance in Canada. There is also a plaque in their honour at 3277 Sandwich Street, Windsor (Sandwich). 

Did you know that a park in Sandwich Town has been renamed to honour Mary E. Bibb, a slavery abolitionist and publisher who lived in Windsor?

Mary Bibb

CBC Windsor: City of Windsor names park after slavery abolitionist, pioneering Black publisher

George Elliott Clarke (1960-present)
Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia near a Black Loyalist settlement, George Elliott Clarke’s writing is known for documenting the history and experiences of Black communities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, coining them “Africadia”. He has also been recognized as an advocate for the study of Black Canadian literature. He was appointed to the Order of Nova Scotia (2006) and Order of Canada (2008) and served as Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-2015) and Canadian Parliamentary Poet (2016-2017). 

As Canadian Parliamentary Poet in 2017, he created the poem “Rollcall” celebrating the history and contributions of African/Black Canadian History on the occasion of Black History Month and Canada’s 150th.

"Roll Call underlines that the history and contribution of African/Black Canadian history to our country is one of individuals working heroically in the past, dynamically in the present, and, inspired, for the future. These names represent individuals whose stories compose our history and our current struggles for triumph and success.” 

Mary Ann Shadd
Mary Ann Shadd (1823-1893)
“Self reliance is the fine road to independence.”

Mary Ann Shadd was an American-Canadian abolitionist, journalist, lawyer, and publisher. She was the first black female publisher in North America and the first female publisher of any race in Canada. 

Mary Ann Shadd was born in Wilmington, Delaware and grew up in Pennsylvania. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 her family relocated to Canada, settling in Windsor, Ontario. Once in Windsor, Shadd opened a racially integrated school for black refugees.

 Also while in Windsor, Mary Ann established The Provincial Freeman (1853-1860). The weekly publication promoted integration and equality, and featured news stories about culture, education, and politics, publicizing the successes of black persons living in freedom in Canada. 

Later, Shadd moved to Chatham, Ontario to continue teaching but ultimately returned to the United States to work as a teacher in Washington, D.C. Years after, Shadd pursued law studies at Howard University and in 1883 became one of the first Black women to complete a law degree.

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