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Ottawa has a thriving black community whose history in the region stretches back to before the arrival of Lt. Col. John By. While much is published, there is something to be said about sitting down with someone and listening to their personal story. I met with Thomas Barber, a descendant of Alexander Rogers (b. Kentucky, 1865), to talk about the history of the Barber family which spans from the USA of the late 1800s to Ottawa in the early 20th century. Barber gave an enthusiastic and knowledgeable account as he described the spaces that his family occupied in their daily lives.
Two of Barber’s uncles were respected business owners, and both lived and worked in parts of the city that have seen a great deal of change over time. Barber’s Uncle Jack ran a bicycle business at 135 Nelson Street, out of a modest house which was at the time a neighbourhood gathering spot. Sadly, the house was destroyed and replaced with a parking lot. Uncle Jack’s own home, located at 19 St Joseph Street, met a similar fate — it is now the parking lot for De La Salle High School.
Uncle Paul Barber Jr. started his career as a newsboy at the corner of Bank and Sparks in 1905, when he was only 12 years old. The business and political elite of the day, including Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, all bought their daily paper from Uncle Paul. While most didn’t know him by name, they all knew “The Voice” as he called out the headlines in an effort to sell papers.
To fast-forward to the Ottawa of the 1960s, when the city saw an influx of immigrants from the Caribbean, I talked to Luke Campbell, of the famous Spicy Luke’s restaurant. Campbell recounted his days working in local hotels to build a reputation as a talented chef, so that he could eventually open his own business on Prince of Wales Drive, near Meadowlands Drive. The location where Campbell first served up his famous Jamaican patties is now a Tim Hortons. Campbell is now the head of the Jamaican (Ottawa) Community Association, an organization that this year is celebrating 50 years of helping Jamaicans settle into a new life in Canada.
Like Thomas Barber, Campbell recounted many stories about the elders in his community. He particularly remembers Florence Robinson, whose home was a hub of support and comfort for single women who had come from Jamaica to work in Ottawa as domestics in the 1960s. The house still stands today in Centretown on Percy Street, just north of Gladstone Avenue, though Robinson has long passed away.
While still a slim volume, these recollections are an important aspect of Ottawa’s history, and play an essential role in the lives and memories of the descendents of Ottawa’s black settlers. Thanks to proud custodians like Thomas Barber and Luke Campbell, these stories, and the spaces linked to them, carry on their connection to the black community in Ottawa.