Tiki’s story: Hard times for Blacks in Toronto

By Dave Douglas

Storyteller Tiki Mercury-Clarke described the difficulty of growing up Black in 1960s Toronto. Peter Tang Photo
Storyteller Tiki Mercury-Clarke described the difficulty of growing up Black in 1960s Toronto. Peter Tang Photo

In a 2015 report on Urban City Safety compiled by the Economist magazine Toronto was named best place to live in the world. And according to Statistics Canada, Toronto is the most diverse city in Canada and one of the most multicultural in the world.

Today, Toronto residents have everything to be proud of. However, the positive phrase of “Toronto the Good” has not always been the case, at least not for Black folks living in the city during the19 50’s and 60’s.

On Feb. 6, at the Toronto Public Library Kick-off Gala for Black History Month, renowned Canadian-born singer, pianist, songwriter, cultural historian and Kabandwa (a keeper and storyteller of African ancestral memories) Tiki Mercury-Clarke gave a personal account of what it was like growing up Black in Toronto during the 1960’s.

Tiki has a unique style of storytelling. She integrates the blues, gospel and jazz with poetry and spoken word, with a dash of wit on top. After greeting her enthusiastic audience, she talked about rhythm being the root of life, that day-to-day activity we face every day. But in the 60’s, for the Mercury family, that rhythm was not always in sync. It was different. They had to deal with the demeaning challenges of racism on a daily basis, especially on Sundays.

The family lived in Riverdale before it was called Riverdale and as Tiki recalls: when her parents wanted to buy a house in 1962, they had to have a white person to front for them in order to purchase the home because although Toronto did not have any Jim Crow laws, they had practices like Jim Crow. The idea of having a Black family living next door was a no! No!

Tiki’s siblings were typical of most families. They got up, had breakfast and went to school, then came home, had a snack and went to bed, a normal rhythm. Saturday was grocery shopping and house cleaning. But Sundays, those were special days.

“Let me tell you! Sundays was going to church day and in our community, the Black community was small and we didn’t have access to a lot of things, so our church was really a community centre and not just a place of worship. It was a place of community as well. And so, a lot of people who went there who had no religious beliefs,” Tiki recalls.

​For nine-year-old Tiki, her mother and six-year-old brother, the walk from the house at (Gerard and Rodney) to the bus stop was an ordeal in itself.

“We would walk this gauntlet of parents on both sides of the street, with their kids spitting at us, throwing stuff at us, telling us to go back to Africa and calling us names. It was really quite dramatic.

“Even on Sunday we had to be careful walking down the middle of the road because people would want to come out and still throw stuff. But we were going to church because this was our oasis in the week. We had to go to get the spiritual strength to continue to deal with what’s happening the rest of the week and also for those of us who lived in the area where we were the only chocolate chips in the sea of vanilla.”

​On arrival at the BME (British Methodist Episcopal) at Shaw and College, Tiki describes what happened when the church got crowded and there were no seats. They would use what she calls their ‘reserved seats.’

“What happened back then when Black people sat in seats by themselves, in a seat that sat two or more, nobody would sit besides us no matter how crowded it got on the bus or street car, so we called it, our reserved seats.”

​Although the TTC had placed a Sunday stop at Shaw Street to accommodate churchgoers, Tiki and her family had to always chance that they would get a driver that would let them off. If there were no white people wanting to get off, they would be taken to the next stop where there were white people wanting to get off or on and that sometimes took awhile.

​”Fortunately, because of where this church was situated, there was always someone who wanted to get off at Ossington, so we did not have to go that far but other routes, we could be taken blocks out of our way”

Tiki remarked, “of course, we could not say anything to them but we would not give them the satisfaction of letting them even know that we knew what they were doing. So we just kept our dignity and we got off.”