Baby Shoes – A look at African-Canadian family bonds, and Toddlerhood

Jake Mills


Historians Craft is a course that tries to answer two primary questions, what is history, and why does it matter?  Throughout the class we have had one major assignment, motivated from the book Slavery in Small Things, by James Walvin[i], where the author tells a story of the past through an object, showing that history can be integrated into anything, and that almost all items have more to them than meets the eye. For my project, I selected a pair of baby shoes donated to the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society[ii] by Earl and Horace Chase, a pair of brothers, and members at the museum. Just looking at this item inspired my research on babyhood, toddlerhood, and the importance of family for African-Canadian families, looking from 1900 onwards. The ultimate goal of my research was to be able to tell a story and relay an element of the past through only the use of a pair of baby shoes donated to a museum.

The Process

This section will discuss my process from start to finish, including a moment I thought was going to ultimately ruin my research project entirely. The journey began with a fieldtrip to the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society where my classmates along with myself examined the various items related to black history they had on display. The item that spoke to me that inspired my entire research project was a set of baby shoes, along with one additional shoe (pictured at top of blog). One of the thing that immediately came to mind was that I had never heard any stories about black babies in slavery, emancipation, or post emancipation. Children in general were largely left out of the history textbooks, and this is what solidified my object. Not only did I want to tell the story of these shoes, I wanted to learn. After the trip, we began looking into archives and beginning our research. This process showed who crates knowledge and how it can be used and misused, finding appropriate sources pertaining to my item was some of the difficult work in the process, but also the most important. I presented my initial research to obtain feedback and reworked my research question to focus it more, ad initially it included all of North America over a broad time range. After finding many new sources and beginning to answer the questions I had posed, I decided it was finally time to link this research and this history to my object, a process which I thought would be easy, as an employee at the museum gave me Horace Chase’s phone number (the donator) in order to contact him. This is where trouble struck for my assignment and ultimately, I thought I was going to have to scrap the whole thing. I called Horace very late into my research with a list of questions framed around the shoes so I could learn, relay, and relate the shoes to my research, however to my surprise he was confident that he had not in fact donated the shoes, and that it perhaps may have been his brother Earl. So, I contacted Earl after obtaining his phone number, and he told me that he has only ever donated a baseball uniform to the museum and has never touched a pair of baby shoes. There I was, sitting with all my research and no possible way to relate it back to the item. I thought that all of my work had been for nothing, that I was going to have to present my failure, and that all my research was useless. However, this is not that case, this is an important, and real step in the research process. Not all items will have a rich backstory, will be able to directly relate to any given topic, or will even have anything known about them. Of course, this is all useful information to a historian, but it is not necessary information.  I had chosen an item with an impossible backstory, perhaps the museum had mislabelled the artifact, perhaps the Chase brothers had forgotten giving it away, either way, the journey of my item started and finished at the Chatham Kent Black Historical Society for me. Although my research did not directly relate to this item, it was still inspired by and was framed around this item, and through the use of other similar local microhistories, I would still be able to tell a story as I had imagined. Similar to Graham Broad while writing his book, One in a Thousand [iii], writing about my failures is still valuable information, and does not discredit other sources I have found.

A Hole in History

A major issue which I faced while obtaining my research, which also inspired my research, was the lack of information on babyhood and toddlerhood in history. There is an expression “History is written by the victors”, for those not involved in any war or battle, like babies, they never will be the victor, and never will have stories written about them. A large reason it is so difficult to find sources on babies is that they are minorities, and looking at African-Canadian babies, is looking for a minority group of minorities. One of the few books found was Nations Are Built of Babies: Saving Ontario’s Mothers and Children, 1900-1940[iv], which gave context as to what white babies lives were like, but the only mention of African-Canadians was that in this time period, “Black mortality Rate is Double Whites.”. The notion that nations re built on babies is inherently true, people’s kin are often the most powerful motivator and driving force behind many decisions made throughout history, yet the children themselves are seldom mentioned. The most information on the topic is related to medical history, often involving the mother and includes generally more quantifiable information than qualitative. For example, in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 1945, physicians wrote about black women developing eclampsia, a condition related to childbirth, more than white woman, and stated this is because white women cooperated with their physicians in keeping appointments and keeping to their diets, whereas black women did not [v]. Due to the lack of sources on actual baby hood, sources with similar topics, motherhood, childbirth, adolescence, were needed to supplement, with only fractions of the sources pertaining to my research.

African Families in Canada

The baby shoes tell a story of an African-Canadian family living with a toddler in the Chatham-Kent Area. Despite not belonging to the correct baby, the stories and lesson from history are very similar. The missing link from the actual baby shoes is a man named Earl ‘Flat’ Chase (1910-1954), the father of Horace and Earl Chase who would have purchased the shoes for them. (Attached Picture of Earl ‘Flat’ Chase) During the 19th century, the Chatham area was part of the underground railroad, and because of this, many black families settled in the area. By the 1850’s, the city of Chatham was referred to as the “Black Mecca of Canada” [vi]. A museum in the city, the Black Mecca Museum, still bears this name. Chatham was home to a number of black churches and business, with Black Canadians making up 1/3 of the city’s population and controlling a significant portion of the city’s political power. Many microhistories such as the story of George Johnson [vii], came to Canada with a large family and many children. The census shows he came with a family of eight children, his wife, and an older woman, most likely his mother. In George Johnson’s case, he states his family loved Canada due to how much land was available for his family. Johnson had twelve children, however three of them did not live past adolescence. This trend is suggested in many sources, such as Nations are Built of Babies, which list the infant mortality rate of black children being significantly higher than that of white children. George Johnson continued to live on his 21 acres of land with three of his unmarried children, wife, and mother until he passed. A key element of the life of George was that even after having children, he remained living with his mother. Extended families living in shared households were very common, as the grandmother in the case of the Johnsons and many other cases, played a role in taking care of the children, especially during toddlerhood. This also demonstrates that commonly women were the primary caretakers for both black and white people at this time, with the father playing a far smaller role in babyhood, “As in the United States, so in Canada, the Negro family revolves around the mother as the enforcer of discipline in the home and as the most dependable breadwinner.”[viii]. Using microhustories like that of George Johnson show what the life of Horace and Earl chase very well might have been like, and looking at toddlerhood in the Johnson family tells a common story of family body and babyhood for many African-Canadian families.


Family Bonds of African-Canadians and Toddlerhood

My research has demonstrated that African Canadian babies were extremely loved and valued, and were a very important part of the family. Opportunity was first presented for black families in Canada in 1849, where babies and children could go on to participate in schools. “Ontario amended its School Act in 1849 to permit municipal councils to authorize the establishing of any number of schools for the education of the children of colored people that they may judge expedient”[ix]. However, as many other studies on African-Canadian history has shown, this meant far from equality, and people still saw black families very differently. African families were perceived very differently depending on the source, often when written by a white man they are written like, “African type of family with is polygamy numberless children”[x]. As seen through George Johnson, and Earl ‘Flat’ Chase, have 12 and 4 children respectively, one aspect of African-Canadian families is that they do tend to be larger than white families. Many African-Canadian families complain about the fact that they are sanctioned for bringing up their children the African way which, in the uni-dimensional system defined by mainstream society, is constructed as backward and abusive [xi].  Decipher the sources at hand has proven to be one of the most important aspect of this exercise. I have learned that not only has this subject been neglected from the history textbooks, but when it is included, it is written by majority groups who know little about the subject, or misinterpret the information. There is very little ethnographic research that has been done on this subject, because African-Canadian families were so neglected at the time. Baby shoes like these shoes donated by the Chase brothers would have been worn around the house and property, a property shared by their multiple siblings, and extended family. Although the importance and love for family is something extremely important and extremely present for African-Canadian families, something which was not understood to the majority of the public as represented in historical accounts. One thing about history is that you can learn a tremendous amount even from the tiniest pair of shoes.



[i] Walvin, James. Slavery in Small Things: Slavery and Modern Cultural Habits. John Wiley and Sons, 2016.


[ii]           Black Historical Society. Chase Family History. Chatham: Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society. 1994


[iii] Broad, Graham. One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Eddie Mckay. University of Toronto Press. 2017.


[iv] Comacchio, Cynthia. Nations are Built of Babies: Saving Ontario’s Mothers and Children, 1900-1940. Mcgill-Queen’s Press. 1998.


[v] Mitchinson, Wendy. Giving Birth in Canada, 1900-1950. University of Toronto Press. 2002. Page 150.


[vi] Schoolman, Martha: Hickman, Jared. Abolitionist Places. 1st Edition ISBN 9780415814539


[vii] Shadd, Adrienne. Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton. Dundurn. 2010.


[viii] Winks, Robin. Blacks in Canada: A History. Carleton Library Series.  Mcgill-Queen’s Press. 1997


[ix] Constance Backhouse. Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada. University of Toronto Press. 1999.


[x] Borg Barthet, Stella. Shared Waters: Surroundings in Postcolonial Literatures. Rodopi, 2009.


[xi] Tettey, Wisdom, Puplampu, Korbla. The African Diaspora in Canada: Negotiating Identity and Belonging. University of Calgary Press. 2005.