Gordon Shadrach, Written in Stone, 2017, acrylic on birch panel. Private collection. Photo: Bernard Clark
Connecting the Cotton Trade to Life in Canada

Connecting the Cotton Trade to Life in Canada

Since the public murder of George Floyd and the social justice uprisings of summer 2020, there has been a renewed call to challenge racism. We must question dominant narratives and reimagine an equitable history.  Yet, how do we do this? What archives might we mine?  What frameworks do we question?

History Is Rarely Black or White explores these questions through garments, artifacts, portraiture, and contemporary art related to the cotton trade. The capitalist structure of the 1700s to 1800s cotton supply chain systemically entrenched Blackness as an inhuman, economic element to be controlled.

This legacy is still with us today— manifesting in the ways people of colour are disproportionately policed and incarcerated. The 1800s cotton garments in the Queen’s Collection of Canadian Dress were created through the cotton trade that produced this problematic legacy. There is therefore a direct link between the cotton industry, Agnes’s collection of such garments, and Kingston’s penitentiaries.

We ask: what does it mean to be Black in Canada? How has life changed over time? How can we bring into being a different future?   

The Underground Railroad was a secret network established in the early to mid-1800s through which enslaved African Americans escaped North into Canada. 

Early Accounts of Black Life in Canada


(Left-Right): Portrait of Mary Jane McCurdy at 9 years old, daughter of Nasa and Permelia McCurdy, undated, mounted photograph. Archives of Ontario / Archives publiques de l’Ontario (I0026081)

Unidentified woman, 1875, tintype photograph. Archives of Ontario / Archives publiques de l’Ontario, Alvin D. McCurdy fonds (I0028818)

Randolph Burr, who used the surname Holten after leaving slavery (Alvin’s great-grandfather), undated, mounted photograph. Archives of Ontario / Archives publiques de l’Ontario (I0024778)

Horace Hawkins, around 1890s, Mounted photograph, Archives of Ontario / Archives publiques de l’Ontario (I0027805)

Tintypes and Garments

Formerly enslaved African-Americans and their descendants living in Ontario used clothing and photography to present themselves as new Canadians with style, dignity and self-assurance. These individuals pushed back against their colonial identity as enslaved property – owned goods whose sole worth was to plant and harvest cotton. While these images are arresting in nature, the names of many people depicted therein are unknown. Similarly, the clothing of formerly enslaved individuals has been largely lost over time.

How might we mine existing archives to tell their stories?

The juxtaposition of the tintypes with related accounts from the Archives of Ontario, alongside similar garments from Agnes’s collection, form an ‘archival imaginary.’ This is curator Jason Cyrus’ term for the bringing together of related material across archives that contain records, textiles, clothing, photography, and oral history – which situated together fills gaps in institutional knowledge.

Pairing these items allows us to reimagine the stories and lives lost in archives.

On the left is an image of a formal black silk dress with iridescent purple flowers printed on the fabric. On the right is a tintype photograph from the 1870s of a Black woman wearing a day dress with lace at the collar and the edge of the sleeves. She is seated in a chair and she is gazing at the viewer.
Left: Unknown Maker, Dress, 1865–1875, cotton and silk. Photo: Bernard Clark
Right: Unidentified woman in formal dress (detail), around 1870s, tintype photograph. Archives of Ontario / Archives publiques de l’Ontario (I0027803)
On the left, there is a tintype portrait from c. 1875 of a young Black man wearing a frock, waistcoat and a hat. He leans on a book that rests on a small circular table with items on it. On the right, is a black double-breasted frock coat.
Left: Unidentified man (detail), ca. 1875, tintype photograph. Archives of Ontario / Archives publiques de l’Ontario (0024805)
Right: New York Clothing Co., Frock, 1840–1900, wool and cotton. Photo: Bernard Clark
On the left there is a black, double-breasted vest with little embroidered diamonds speckled across the fabric. On the right, there is a mid-length tintype/carte-de-visite portrait of Randolph Burr.
Left: Unknown Maker, Waistcoat, 1890–1910, linen and cotton. Photo: Bernard Clark
Right: Randolph Burr, who used the surname Holten after leaving slavery (Alvin’s great-grandfather), undated, mounted photograph. Archives of Ontario / Archives publiques de l’Ontario (I0024778)

Jim Johnson, a Kingston barber, worked out of his salon on Wellington Street for forty years. The handwritten note on the reverse of this carte-de-visite indicates that Sir John A. Macdonald was a client.

Historian Jennifer McKendry shares that Johnson’s origin was noted as ‘African’ in the 1871 census, even though he was born in Ontario in 1837. His father William, also a barber, moved to Kingston in 1826 from Ohio during a time when enslavement, Blackness, and cotton were closely linked.

James Powell, Jim Johnson, around 1875, photograph. Collection of Jennifer McKendry

James Powell, Jim Johnson (verso), around 1875, photograph. Collection of Jennifer McKendry

Installation view of History Is Rarely Black or White. Photo: Paul Litherland

Gordon Shadrach

Gordon Shadrach’s work explores the cotton trade’s legacy of shaping perceptions of Blackness. In his portraits, Shadrach depicts men in historic and contemporary dress. He pays keen attention to his sitter’s hair, skin tone, clothing, and expression – aware of the ways in which these elements shift perceptions of their identity as either respectable or threatening.

In both Adorn and Procurement, Shadrach portrays artist Jabari “Elicser” Elliot. How do these portraits present Elliot differently? What negative or positive perceptions arise from their difference?

Gordon Shadrach
Hear Gordon Shadrach speak about his paintings of Black men in historical dress.

My name is Gordon Shadrach, and I’m a portrait artist from Toronto. My work speaks mostly about representation of Black males and confronting the stereotypes around how they’re presented, and also the semiotics of clothing. The series of portraits that are in this exhibit are reflective of the thread that runs through most of my work. In that it shows Black men in both contemporary and historical dress. It’s something that I’ve been fascinated with, by placing Black figures in a historical context where we were rarely seen. Both in historical art and in contemporary art. It was revolutionary to show Black people just existing in a piece of artwork without dealing with a political subject matter. However, Black bodies, in any context, whether they’re in a painting, or how their bodies are being used in sports, in work, or in labour, it’s always a political issue. And so one of the connecting factors that I think is really important to recognize, is that without Black bodies in North America, we wouldn’t have the structures that we have now. The structures that have now been designed to keep Black people out. So, essentially, we’re fighting to get our way back into something that we’ve worked for, and that’s something that we’ve earned.

When we look at a portrait like this one, where I’ve placed a contemporary Black man in historic dress, I’ve been confronted with viewers who feel that he looks like he’s wearing a costume. Despite the fact that Black people have existed for centuries and in North America for hundreds of years. There are people in the art world or in the audience that don’t recognize that we existed in certain historical eras. And so when confronted with issues — or, sorry, with pictures or images of Black people in historic dress, it confronts and it conflicts with their understanding of what North American or Western history is supposed to look like. So by inserting these Black bodies in these images, it really is quite challenging for a lot of people. And despite the fact that there are existing documentation, whether through painting or through tintypes and photographs, historical photographs, people are unaware of the existence of Black people in certain times in North America.

Image Credits