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Ontario House: A place of refuge for Black women escaping abuse

YWCA Toronto
YWCA Toronto
October 15, 2021

There is a framed black and white photograph that overlooks the main foyer at YWCA Toronto’s Elm Street location. It is of a row of women standing in front of a brick building – some wearing hats, most in long coats, all of them looking ahead at the camera. This row of women all came to Canada from the Caribbean to work as housekeepers and caregivers during what was and still is known as “the domestic scheme.” The image is dated 1912.

The building they are standing in front of is Ontario House, a residence run by YWCA Toronto at 698 Ontario Street. It was a place for workers to find both safety from employers and community with other women who shared the experience of working in a predominately white society and so very far from home. The image stands in the foyer as a reminder of YWCA Toronto’s history and its commitment to anti-oppressive, anti-racist learning and action. Director of Permanent Housing, Alethia Lewis, first found it in the back room of an office with other archival materials at the 1st Stop Woodlawn shelter in early 2018 and was curious to know the names, stories and experiences of the women in this photo. So, she reached out to the Ontario Black History Society who connected her with a local Black historian and archivist, Kathy Grant, to help. Luckily, Kathy had her own unique knowledge of the photo and its historic roots. In fact, she has a giant reproduction of the photo given to her by YWCA Toronto in her living room.

To find out more, Manager of Marketing & Communications and co-chair of YWCA Toronto’s Anti-Black Racism Committee, Kim Quashie, caught up with Kathy via Zoom to talk about the photo and learn about YWCA’s connection to Toronto’s Black history. Below is an excerpt of their conversation that was documented by Wren Pragg, our former social media officer.

You were able to identify some of the women in this Ontario House photo. Can you tell us more about it and about Ontario House in general?

Yes, Theodosia Audain came to Toronto from St. Kitts in the early 1900s. She was staying at a residence in the College Street area [while working as a domestic]. The people who employed her would call her names. They called her a “Black thing,” and the children would hit her. She escaped one day, in her stocking feet. She went to the police and complained about the treatment that she experienced. And they had to find another place for her. She was one of many Blacks that came to Ontario as domestics and that were experiencing similar types of treatment. Some of the domestics were treated well, but then some of them were treated horribly. There was a growing concern at the time that some of these women did not have [safe] places to stay. This is why YWCA Toronto opened Ontario House – to have a safe place for these women to live. Ontario House started off by housing about twelve women and ended up providing services for over 80 women. 

How about the other women? 

Another person in the photo is Maude Bailey, who is the person holding the dog. Her daughter, Ruth, was one of the first Black nurses in Canada. And she had to leave Ontario to do nursing in Nova Scotia because they would not accept Black women in teaching hospitals. There are some old newspaper clippings that document this: At the time, the Negro Veterans’ Association went to the Minister of Health and said “You are funding these institutions that are denying Black women and telling them to go to the States or go someplace else. Additionally, the Association said to the Minister “you should not be funding them.” This was in 1947 and I have digitized copies of those newspaper articles.

Speaking of newspapers, is that how you found the Ontario House photo to begin with? 

My dad sent me an article in the Toronto Star, dated April 9th, 1992 that featured this picture. The person who had written the article was the author, Austin Clark. My dad had sent it because Austin Clark was my dad's student liaison officer. Many years later, in 2008, I visited Austin, and he had this same picture on his mantle. And I said, “Well, can you tell me a little bit about these women?” And he said “Well, I know that this person is Theodosia Audain.” I kept this note in the back of my mind. So, when I received an email from Alethia asking about the women, I said, “I know that story.” I started to do some research. I had dug up some information about Theodosia already. And by coincidence, I had met her granddaughter, nieces and nephew on a four hour boat cruise on August 18th, 2019 at Connie’s Jam Meet and Great Boat Cruise at Harbourfront.

Wow, you actually met someone connected to the women in this photo?

I recognized her name first, because of her last name, which was Esco. Vern Esco was a famous boxer. And he named his daughter Fern. So, when I was on the boat, and she said “Hi, my name is Fern,” I said, “Are you Fern Esco?” And she freaked out and said, “Well, that was my maiden name.” We started talking and I started telling her all about her grandmother. As a result of that conversation, she and her cousin went to New York, where she lived, a couple of weeks later and found pictures of both Theodosia and her children. So that is how that story started.

The story of Theodosia then continued in an exhibit at Toronto’s Afrocentric School? 

Yes. The Afrocentric School began in 2009 because Black parents wanted a school where their children would learn about Black history, from Black teachers. I spent months from October 2018 to June 2019 at the school as part of A Different Booklist’s curation program, which involved me going in every Wednesday to spend time with grade seven and eight students, and help them connect with their history. Pretty soon students from all other age groups would join. They were so proud to write about their history. 

One grade three student, Desiree fell in love with the Ontario House picture. On a visit in October after my work with the school, this student did not want to go trick or treating on Halloween because she wanted to start on the project involving Theodosia. I suggested that she create art from a picture of herself holding up the picture of Theodosia and her two children. Unfortunately, I could not see her final piece because of COVID. 

Another student created a pencil portrait of a domestic from the 1800s. Because we were also talking about YWCA Toronto’s picture, I said, “Well, you know, I have a picture of another domestic from the 1800s, who was related to a friend of mine, can you create another pencil portrait of this picture for me?” So, I commissioned her and she did this beautiful pencil sketch of this domestic from the 1800s that I have in my kitchen. When this student graduated from the program, she posed for a photo in front of YWCA Toronto’s Ontario House image with pride.

Whatever happened to Ontario House?

They ended up having to shut down Ontario House because it was too popular. I would love to know who the other 80 women were and what happened to them. Ontario House today does not look remotely the same. It was torn down and replaced with a housing complex. 

I am so thankful for you, Kathy, for taking the time to chat with us not just about the photo but about how it has been a springboard for your work. This photo is about resilience. A greater breadth of knowledge about our collective Black presence in the city and in Canada is something we so need – it is not done nearly enough. Thank you, thank you.

My pleasure! 

Born in Montreal to Barbadian immigrants, Kathy Grant is a public historian and founder of Legacy Voices and Black Canadian Veterans Stories, which ensures Black Canadian History is documented and preserved.

Wren Pragg is the former Social Media Officer in the Advocacy and Communication department.

Kim Quashie is the Manager of Marketing and Communications in the Advocacy and Communications department and co-chair of YWCA Toronto’s Anti-Black Racism Committee.