A large glass building with a tan stone building beside it. The stone building has 3 levels of windows and a modern storefront underneath.

Reform City: Moral and Mental Improvement Society

The Moral and Mental Improvement Society

A large glass building with a tan stone building beside it. The stone building has 3 levels of windows and a modern storefront underneath.

The Elgin Buildings, Yonge Street, December 19, 2022.

A sketch of a woman and seven children. The sketch says "Arrival from Maryland/ Ann Maria Jackon and her seven children- Mary Ann, William Henry, Frances Sabrina, Wilhelmina, John Edwin, Ebenezer thomas, and William Albert".

Sketch of Ann Maria Jackson and her children, Canada, 1872. Image by Porter and Coates. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A black and white image of a large stone building. The building is rectangular and has an arched entryway. The main floor windows are arched, while the rest of teh windows are rectangular. Two people are standing accross teh street from the building on the left of the image.

Mechanics Institute, Church Street, Circa 1890. Image courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

A black-and-white image of a man. he is looking slightly to the right of the image and is wearing a dark suit and bowtie. Only the top half of the man is visible in the image.

Dr. Alexander T. Augusta. Image from “Howard University Medical Department: A Historical, Biographical, and Statistical Souvenir”, 1900 by Dr. Daniel Smith Lamb.

A Black Literary Club

In the early 1860s, Toronto’s Black community made up about 2% of the city’s population. About half of the Black population lived in St. John’s Ward. Black Torontonians formed clubs and societies to serve their growing community, as well as new arrivals who had escaped enslavement in the United States.

One example was the Moral and Mental Improvement Society, a debate and literary club. The society met every Monday evening in the upper floor of the Elgin Buildings at 120 Yonge Street. In 1859, the reformer Francis Griffin Simpson served as Vice-President of the Society.

It is possible that the club was open to men and women. Benjamin Drew, an American abolitionist and acquaintance of Francis Griffin Simpson, described seeing on his visit to Toronto in 1856 a “lyceum or debating club (which is attended by both sexes) where debates are held, and original essays are read.” 

Ann Maria Jackson

Toronto’s Black community often proved vital in connecting new arrivals to resources within the city. In 1858, Ann Maria Jackson, an enslaved woman in Delaware, escaped the United States with several of her children to Toronto. Two of her sons had been sold previous to her escape, and her free husband had died of grief as a result.

On her arrival, Jackson had difficulty connecting with a House of Industry official, who came twice to see her at the wrong address. It was December, and the family needed food and fuel. Housing instability and the large volume of newcomers made it difficult for officials to locate residents in the crowded St. John’s Ward. Jackson worked as a laundress to support her family; records document her requests of bread and wood from the House of Industry, always in the winter, when work was hardest to find.

Finally, Jackson connected with Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, prominent Black business owners who helped her and her family establish themselves in the city. She and her children developed a lifelong connection with the Blackburn family. Ann Maria’s youngest son, Albert Jackson, became the first Black postman in Canada, and he is commemorated on the 2019 Black History Month stamp.

Defenders of Abolition

Other prominent members of the city’s Black community worked to provide aid and resources. Dr. Alexander T. Augusta (1825–1890) was a Black physician at the House of Industry and ran an apothecary on Yonge Street. Augusta worked with Adolphus Judah, another prominent Black community member, to create the Association for the Education and Elevation of Coloured People, which provided lectures and school supplies to Black students. 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Augusta returned to the United States to join the Union Army. Following the end of the Civil War, he stayed in the United States to practice medicine. In 1868, Dr. Augusta became the first Black faculty member of an American school, teaching anatomy at Howard University.


An Inclusive Library System

The Toronto Public Library is the largest public library system in Canada, operating 100 branches across the city. Its precursor was the York Mechanic’s Institute, which offered adult education and skill development for the members of the working class. Since the Institute was open to people of all racial backgrounds, many working-class, Black Torontonians took advantage of the offered courses.

Established in 1831, the goal of the York Mechanic’s Institute was to create a library and offer lectures and professional development courses. When York was incorporated as the City of Toronto in 1834, the Institute changed its name. W. W. Baldwin and James Lesslie, co-founders of the House of Industry, also served as President and Secretary of the York Mechanic’s Institute.

In 1861, the Institute had enough funds to move to a new facility at 77 Church Street. It contained a library, reading room, lecture hall, and music hall. Over time, the decision was made to establish a public library system, and in 1884, the first Toronto Public Library opened in the building on Church Street.

Additional Resources

ERA. “Ghost Wall: Casting a Heritage Façade in Concrete”. ERA Architects Blog. 2014.

Hendrick, George and Willene Hendrick. Black Refugees in Canada: Accounts of Escape During the Era of Slavery. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2010.

Leroux, Karen. “Making a Claim on the Public Sphere: Toronto Women’s Anti-Slavery Activism, 1851-1854.” MA diss. University of British Columbia, 1996.

McFarquhar, Colin. “Blacks in 1880s Toronto: The Search for Equality”. Ontario History. Vol. 99, No. 1, Spring 2007.