The Dawn of Tomorrow was a “First” Almost Forgotten By History

By Cheryl Thompson

I am a first generation Canadian born of immigrant parents. I was the first person in my family to attend and graduate university. And I am the only person with a PhD in my extended family.

One of the joys I have experienced writing about Black Canada is the act of finding “firsts” in history. Discovering the stories of Black Canadians who broke colour barriers or crossed de facto lines of segregation, or better yet, learning about folks who did everyday things like getting married or performing at church. These discoveries were (and remain) life changing for me because they signified that folks who looked like me have not only lived in this country for centuries but that they have challenged unjust policies, resisted inequitable laws, and had fun and celebrated amid the worst of circumstances. While I might not know their names, somewhere in the archive, they are waiting to be discovered.

That’s how my path and the Dawn of Tomorrow collided.

In 2010, I stumbled upon a few editions of the newspaper while searching the microfilm collection at McGill University’s McLennan Library. Through interlibrary loan, I ordered the entire archived newspaper, located at the University of Western Ontario, to be sent to Montreal where I could then access it. By 2012, I had searched the available records of The Dawn from 1923 to 1971, and by 2014, the newspaper had formed a pivotal part of the primary sources in my dissertation which would go on to become my first book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture (2019).

After my PhD defense, I found myself living in Montreal without a job but with a lot of time on my hands. And that’s when I stumbled upon the Canadian Journal of History’s (CJH) Graduate Essay Prize.

Though the deadline was tight, and I did not consider myself a historian at that time, I knew that The Dawn had played such an important role in my research, and that it had not yet been written about in an in-depth way, so I threw my work into the ring and I told myself that the worst that could happen was that a committee of historians did not like the essay but, with their feedback, I could continue to improve and submit the work elsewhere.

To my surprise, I won the Essay Prize for my article,  “Cultivating Narratives of Race, Faith, and Community: The Dawn of Tomorrow, 1923–1971” which appeared in Volume 50, Issue 1 (2015) of the CJH.

It was only after winning the prize that I fully grasped that I had pushed The Dawn out of the shadows of history, and into the forefront of discussions about Black Canadian newspapers, Black contributions to Canadian history, and Canada’s media history. I had awoken an entire field that I didn’t even know existed.

The story of The Dawn is unique because it is quite different to Black newspapers that had come before it.

On July 14, 1923 James F. Jenkins, who had moved to London, Ontario as a young adult in 1913 from Georgia, launched The Dawn. The paper dubbed itself as “Devoted to the Interests of the Darker Races.”

The newspaper reflected the spirit of the New Negro for which consumerism, leisure, and the promotion of Black arts, music, and culture was just as important as fighting back against racism, the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, which spread across Canada during the 1920s, and other forms of disfranchisement.

The Dawn was quite different from nineteenth century southern Ontario newspapers like Voice of the Fugitive (1851-1853), The Provincial Freeman (1853-1858), and early twentieth century papers like Saint John, New Brunswick’s Neith (1903), Toronto’s The Canadian Observer (1914-1919) and Halifax’s Atlantic Advocate (1915-1917), which were all launched to fight for the cause of freedom and/or the demand for full access to citizenship rights.

The Dawn was the first Black Canadian newspaper to feature news not only about race and racism, but also a vibrant Black expressive culture that included church activities, beauty contests, singing groups, dancers, composers and playwrights across Black communities in Ontario but also in Montreal and Halifax, Owen Sound to Windsor.

The Dawn helped me fill in gaps with regard to Black communities in Ontario and beyond.

In its pages I learned about Jenkins’ wife, Christina Elizabeth Jenkins (Howson), who served as advertising manager, and after James’ untimely death, helped to keep the newspaper in circulation.

Finding Christina in its pages helped me connect the Jenkins to Kay Livingstone (1919-1975), their daughter, who established the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (1951-1976), an organization that held the first National Congress of Black Women in 1973.

Their stories prove that when you have an example in your family of community-building, not only can you achieve goals but you can also surpass that which was shown to you as a child.

Through reading The Dawn, I learned about the first Broadway musical to be written, performed, produced, and directed by African Americans, Shuffle Along (1921) which appeared in Toronto and London in 1923.

In 1925, The Dawn also printed a photograph of the first ‘‘colored troop of Boy Scouts to be organized in the border cities’’ which had formed in connection with the British Methodist Episcopal church on McDougall Street in Windsor.

Discovering features like this helped me ask questions about social groups and the underexplored cultural realities of life for Black Canadians in 1920s Canada. The Dawn gave me insights into a world that I never learned about in school or saw represented in the media.

As a 1970 retrospective on The Dawn printed in its pages noted:

“A sense of trust, confidence, and good management must be the reason why ‘The Dawn’ has survived, while so many other newspapers, large and small have folded.”

The Dawn survived for all those years because of Jenkins’s vision, Christina’s strength and dedication, and loyal readers who supported local media.

Now that almost a decade has passed since my article was first published, it feels right to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its original publication. The Dawn is an inspiration and I know it will continue to be one for many years to come.

Cheryl Thompson is an Associate Professor in Performance at The Creative School, Toronto Metropolitan University. She is author of Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty (2021) and Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture (2019). She is also Director and Creative Lead for Black Creative Lab and She can be reached on YouTube @theblackcreativelab.

This is the first of three posts Active History is running to mark the 100th anniversary of the Dawn of Tomorrow.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.