This William James photograph, used to publicize Black History Month in the City of Toronto and the archives’ holdings relating to black history, evokes a sad episode in the history of black settlement. It recalls a story of abuse suffered by a number of West Indian women who came here as domestic workers over a century ago.
In 1910, responding to a scarcity of farm laborers and house servants, the Conservative Whitney government set up two $10,000 grant programs for organizations to bring in immigrants willing to do these jobs. Travel fare would be paid by a government-contracted agency with the understanding that the immigrant would repay it through his or her wages.
With this program, the government gave tacit approval for individual employers to bring in overseas workers and then draw the travel cost from their pay for an indefinite period of time. The Globe in a March 8 editorial warned of “the great danger of serious abuses under this system that will hold penniless immigrants responsible for obligations contracted in other countries.”
In contrast to the girls and young women recruited in England who were matched with employers and monitored by the Salvation Army (Star Jan. 5, 1911), privately contracted West Indian servants were entirely at the mercy of their employers. In an “I told you so” editorial that summer, The Globe highlighted several recent Toronto cases of servants who had been victims of abuse, assault and theft by their employers.
The fact that racism was a strong element in the abuse, while not mentioned by The Globe, was played up by its attention-seeking cousin, The Toronto World. The tabloid brought together the problem of racism against blacks with the contemporary prurient appetite for stories of “white slavery”. The term referred to the scandal of women being lured by procurers in public spaces outside the protective confines of home, family and community. This was not an entirely spurious association. Young, single women in the workforce or travelling individually as immigrants were perceived by patriarchal authorities to be a social problem. The Salvation Army received generous public funding for Rose Lodge, 916 Yonge St., a boarding house and social centre for young English women and girls working as servants in Toronto. (Star Jan. 5, 1911)
Breaking through the sensationalizing associations with slavery, we hear the very real voices of the victimized West Indian women. Their story reminds us that race-based crime and the scant protection afforded to overseas recruited nannies, domestic and personal care workers are long-standing injustices in Toronto.
DUSKY SERVANTS ILL-TREATED IN TORONTO.
Young Women Brought From West Indies Under Contract Allege That Local Employers Tyrannize so That They Have to Seek Police Assistance.
There is black as well as “white” slavery in Toronto, and the source of supply is among the negro girls of the West Indies.
Numbers of these have been brought to Canada to supply the dearth of domestic servants, and the system of the “slavery” is along the same lines of cruelty and deceit, this of course, in a minor degree, as the peonage of Mexico and Yucatan. Many of these girls have within the last few days appealed to the police for protection against cruelty, insult and a petty tyranny by the retention of their chattels and attacks upon their characters.
An outline of several stories told to The World was submitted to Staff Inspector George Kennedy of the city morality department, who said yesterday:
“Yes, the girls have complained to me, and the department has taken steps to secure restitution of their goods to them. The complaints received in this office are practically as outlined. “
It appears that the girls were brought from the West Indies through a Mrs. Meggs, who lives at St. Kitts, West Indies. Their passage money, about $50, was advanced by their prospective employers, there upon an agreement signed by the girls that they would work for such employers at $10 per month and would repay the advance at $3 per month until the debt was wiped out. Arrived here, they have gone to work as domestics in what are considered reputable and well-conducted homes. Then, in some cases, the treatment accorded has been somewhat akin to that of plantation days, rather than that of free and independent wage-earners.
One Woman’s Story.
The World saw Theodosia Audain, a very black but quite intelligent and refined woman in the police court corridor, yesterday morning. This is her story:
“I came to the city from St. Kitts, West Indies, on May 23. My passage money and expenses, $46, had been advanced to me by Mrs. Meggs in St. Kitts and I was met at the Union Station and taken to my employer’s home in College street. I had not been there long before my mistress and master handled me roughly, and on one occasion the woman threatened to strike me and I had to run from the house.”
“When they were displeased with me they used to call me ‘a black thing,’ and kept me without food and were otherwise cruel to me. One Sunday morning it got so bad that I took my trunk on my head and, without shoes or stockings, ran from the house and sought shelter at the Court-street police station, where Sergeant Geddes sent me to a colored boarding house.”
“I soon got another place, but I was followed by my previous employer, who sent a man to search my trunk, saying I had stolen a diamond ring. They searched everything I had. I gave them the keys of my trunk because I had stolen nothing, and they found nothing. Then I had to leave that place, but the first employer still keeps some of my clothes, and has refused to pay back the passage of money advance me at the rate of $3 per month. I have got a new place now at $15 a month, but my father will send me the money, and I want to go back home, where I will not be called a thief, and where I will not be treated as a slave.”
Ill-Treated in Parkdale.
Another negress, a rather prepossessing young woman, was at the City Hall yesterday morning at the morality department, and the police court clerk’s office, to regain possession of her trunk, retained by an employer who had discharged her.
She had been employed by a Parkdale doctor. The passage money had been advanced under a similar agreement. She had been subjected to indignity, the children throwing water in her face and calling her names reflecting upon her race. When she complained to her mistress she received further insult, and was finally told to get out, but her trunk was retained, and, as in the case previously cited, was refused her even upon agreement to repay the advanced money at the prescribed rate.
Other cases are known, the same story of advanced money and subsequent attempt at chattel slavery. The police officials have already taken steps to secure the return of their property for these friendless strangers, and in one or two cases prosecutions in the police court are possible.