It Starts Here: Black Histories Research Guide at the Archives of Ontario

“Levi Veney, ex-slave who lived in Amherstburg, Ontario. Taken at J. D. Burkes’ general store,” ca. 1898. Alvin D. McCurdy fonds. Reference Code: F 2076-16-3-5. Archives of Ontario. I0024830.

This is the final instalment in a three-part series on the use of content warnings in classrooms, archives, and museums. You can read the first instalment here and the second instalment here.

Melissa J. Nelson & Natasha Henry-Dixon


Melissa J. Nelson : Making Description Remediation Visible

The Archives of Ontario is the largest provincial archive in Canada. However, many of our records were created and collected through extractive colonial processes. Our collections are incomplete — there are omissions, erasures, and silences. This has caused a lot of harm and contributed to mistrust in our institution. Over the last few years, the Archives has shifted its focus to breaking down barriers and building trust. Our goal is to collect, preserve, promote, and provide access to records that document Ontario in all its diversity.

We are working to amplify the voices and stories of communities who have been underrepresented in our practice. Historical records sometimes contain language that is colonial and racist. Past descriptive practices have not always used accurate or community-preferred language, resulting in descriptions that are not easily discoverable. Our Description Remediation Team has been repairing descriptions, and in the process, excavating the presence of marginalized groups in our archives. We include respectful, community-preferred language to minimize harm and improve the findability of these records. I am part of this team, and I provide leadership on the remediation of descriptions for anti-Black archival materials.

I was aware of the violence of the archives — the violence captured within the records and the violence against Black researchers who have to search for hidden archival materials by using derogatory language. Black presence in historical archives is often captured and described by white people. In many cases, the work to locate Black people in the archives necessitates searching for white people first.[1]

I realized there was a need to make this description remediation work visible to support researchers and help direct them to relevant records. I developed our “Records Relating to Black Communities in Ontario Research Guide.” This guide provides respectful keywords that can be used when searching in our collection. It also lists Black records that have been identified in our holdings. The guide is divided into three sections: private records created and collected by Black individuals, Ontario Government records that document community-government interactions, and records related to slavery and freedom. A list of institutions and community archives is also provided to support further research within Ontario.

Essential to the development of this research guide was our partnership with the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS). This partnership was formed to update our online exhibit, “Enslaved Africans in Upper Canada.” The exhibit will now move the focus from the persistence of slavery to a balanced conservation on resistance and abolition. The exhibition and supporting educational materials were originally developed in 2008 using research and interpretation from Afua Cooper and Adrienne Shadd. Lead OBHS researcher Natasha Henry-Dixon located enslaved Black people in our archives to enhance the exhibit and expand what we know about their experiences. This work to surface records about enslaved Black people in the province informed the development of the research guide.

Natasha Henry-Dixon : Locating Enslaved Black People in the Archives

It is important to understand the conditions in which researchers like myself must contend with the archives to study the lives and experiences of enslaved Black people. To work within the archives means I am not working with any singular, cohesive, organized collection. There is no slavery-specific classification in repositories, which has contributed to low results of related metadata and there are no specific slavery-themed finding aids. As such, the enslaved are seemingly hidden and silenced. The “slavery archive” consists of records dispersed in varying fonds and government record series that are held in a range of archival institutions, including the Archives of Ontario. Unlike other places in the Atlantic, there was no standardized record-keeping related to racial chattel slavery such as annual government slave schedules or annual ledgers for personal record-keeping that were more common in plantation economies.

In accordance with the legal and ideological conceptualizations of racial chattel slavery, enslaved Black women, men, and children entered the archives through the violence of racial slavery, where they were recorded as private property like furniture, livestock, and household utensils. They were objectified as commodities to which monetary value was attached as part of various kinds of legal transactions. Many of the records available, and relied upon for research, were created by those who enslaved Black persons and more broadly by settlers of European descent. None were created by individuals who were enslaved. There were also documents created by non-enslavers who observed and recorded information about the enslaved. It is within these parameters that I have found evidence of enslaved Black persons in a range of records in the collection of the Archives of Ontario.

The enslaved are located in the personal family and business records of enslavers, their family members, or their associates in bills of sale, family letters, diaries, property inventories, wills, and accounts books. Enslaved Black people were transferred in sales transactions and were bequeathed as part of the probate of an estate. Accounting books record expenses of enslavers for the people they enslaved and the labour of enslaved Black individuals receiving purchased goods from merchants on behalf of their enslavers.

Military records such as the expansive Haldimand Papers are another place where enslaved Black people were located. They were included in returns and victual lists, particularly at the immediate time of the large wave of Loyalist exile in the early 1780s and later in early settlement. Returns were counts of soldiers and their families at various British Loyalist encampments and victual lists documented rations of food and supplies issued. They were also in other kinds of correspondence between military and colonial government officials. Free and freed Black people were documented in military records as well, mainly Black Loyalist men who had recently gained their freedom and land for their military service.

There is documentation of Black people held in hereditary bondage in church registers of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in entries documenting some of their baptisms, burials, and marriages. Enslaved Black people were sometimes listed with their enslaver’s family in early town censuses and tax assessment rolls. Their status was often identified and on occasion their names and sex. Court minute books contain information relating primarily to the judicial functions of civil and criminal legal proceedings. Some enslaved Black people appear as plaintiffs and defendants in court cases. Records show some were jailed as a form of punishment by their enslavers. Some enslaved Black people were documented in land records with their enslaver’s families in supplementary records such as returns and losses claims. In some cases, land records documented free or freed Black people who submitted land grant petitions and received or were denied land.

Local colonial newspapers like the Upper Canada Gazette, Niagara Herald, and Kingston Gazette hold traces of enslaved Black people. Notices that alerted the public of enslaved runaways and advertisements that placed enslaved individuals for sale were published. While slavery records further dehumanize those held in bondage, some of these records also tell their stories of resistance and refusal. We can use these historical records to ask critical questions of them and re/interpret these documents in ways that weave these archival fragments together to create fuller narratives of Black life.

Terminology and metadata have been important for locating the enslaved in the archives. Enslaved Black people can be located within the existing categorization and indexing practices of traditional archives, particularly in major archival institutions, by searching for specific terms. Keywords that I have used in my electronic searches (where available) include “slave,” “slaves,” “negro,” “negroes,” as well as “esclave” and “esclavage,” the French words for slave and slavery. While these terms are dated, they have yielded relevant search results. Most sources were in the English language but there are some French primary sources too.


The disparate characteristic of the slavery archive poses challenges in locating people of African descent who were forcibly relocated to what is now Ontario. More broadly, archives of Black lives are often hidden, scattered, fragmented, and incomplete. Few archival institutions in Canada have produced research guides for Black history materials. The invisibility of Black presence in the archives signals that we do not matter. The development of a research guide can centralize relevant collections and facilitate more informed research from the public. Consultation or collaboration with individuals who have subject expertise in Black histories is crucial. Equally important, archival institutions need to be open and honest about their current priorities and collecting history. This will allow archival institutions to create meaningful research guides, which will provide the foundation for building a positive future with Black communities. Our stories are worthy of being told. We need to change the archival narrative about Black collections. It starts here.

[1] Paraphrase of Dr. Cheryl Thompson’s statement at the “Black Archives Matter” plenary panel at the Association of Canadian Archivists Annual Conference in 2021.

Melissa J. Nelson an Archivist at the Archives of Ontario. Her work centers Black being and belonging in the archives to support collective healing and liberation movements.

Natasha Henry-Dixon is an Assistant Professor of African Canadian History at York University.

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