A Legacy Spanning Generations
Five generations of Black Canadian resilience, as told through Tracy Cain.
Angel Panag, August 16, 2022 // Brantford, OntarioTracy Cain at her residence in Guelph, Ontario. Photo credit Sarah Evans.
“I have no idea what I’ll be doing there today, but I do know it’s going to help somebody in the community have a better day.” A local non-profit needed volunteers, so Tracy answered the call — details of what and why mattered little. Like the story of generations before her, Tracy’s is one of breaking barriers as well as service to community.
Born in Brantford, Tracy Cain traces her family’s presence in the city back for five generations. Talking to her, you can’t help but feel the spirit of these ancestors. Among them, individuals whose names are displayed on city buildings, the longest living man in Canadian history and every day people who made outstanding contributions to their communities.
She traces part of her family lineage back to Andrew Lucas, a man born on the plantation of the then-General Jackson. Jackson is the same man pictured on the US $20 bill, a man who would go on to be the seventh US President. Andrew Lucas would make his way north through the Underground Railroad, eventually settling in Brantford. If his grave marker is correct, he would be the oldest man to have lived in Canadian history. Buried with him at the Greenwood Cemetery, hundreds of stories untold.
Her parents, Winston and Doreen Johnson, broke colour barriers in the 1960s as the first Black teachers hired by the school board. While highly respected as educators, they were not immune to the prejudice of the times. At times, passed over for opportunities despite being sufficiently qualified. “You had to be 150 per cent just to get to the same place as your peers,” Tracy says. Widespread housing discrimination made finding a home to rent nearly impossible for the family. A property listed for rent would miraculously already be rented out when her parents would show up to the viewing. They were eventually forced to purchase their own home, the first Black family in their North End neighbourhood.
Family photos, including one of Tracy’s grandmother at the former Colborne Street School. Photo credit Sarah Evans.
One day, Tracy recalls, a real estate agent selling the neighbouring home showed up at the family’s door. He asked Mr. Johnson if the family could stay indoors for the day, explaining how hard it would be to sell a home if prospective buyers knew a Black family lived next door. “My dad just looked at him and went ‘OK,’ but as soon as the car drove up, he said, ‘Girls, go outside and play.’” If someone didn’t want to live next to his family, that was their problem — not his. This was a form of resistance — a sort of everyday activism Black Brantfordians were forced to practice.
While there’s no book or film on these everyday activists, their stories carry on in local lore. Massey-Ferguson, once a major employer in the city, attracted a large and diverse workforce. However, Indigenous employees were too often passed over for promotions or given undesirable work. Knowing the pain of racism himself, Tracy’s grandfather became a strong advocate for his Indigenous colleagues in the workplace. Robert Johnson would eventually take the fight all the way to Ottawa in 1951. Similar is a story of Florence Jones, Tracy’s maternal grandmother. The year was 1956, and Florence’s daughter had been let go from her job as a waitress at a downtown hotel after a guest objected to being “served by a coloured lady.” Florence was outraged, beginning a letter writing campaign to the hotel’s management as well as the media. The hotel eventually reinstated her daughter’s position, coupled with a complete apology.
"Your legacy is the history
of generations to come."
In her own adult life, while cleaning a Hamilton credit union, Tracy questioned why so few Black people worked in banking. The manager explained that people were usually hired through connections. Surely, a meaningful conversation between the two ensued. The manager had probably never realized how this method of hiring spelt out exclusion for people of colour. Tracy has since worked her way up to the position of bank manager at that very institution, where she’s been for 27 years. Her sister Karen is a music professor at York University and a founder of the Toronto Mass Choir. Both sisters are exceptionally talented musicians, a skill undoubtedly nurtured by a childhood spent in church.
Outside the Black Heritage Society in Guelph. A former BME Church, where Tracy’s great-grandfather once preached and Tracy recently performed. Photo credit Sarah Evans.
The S.R. Drake Memorial BME Church on Murray Street is one of the few standing reminders of the once sizeable Black presence in the East Ward. The church is named after Tracy’s great-grandfather, the late Reverend S.R. Drake. Drake was a prominent leader in Ontario’s Black community, who pastored at the Brantford church from 1902 to 1909. The BME denomination was created by formerly enslaved people upon arrival in Canada, with a network of chapels once dotting communities from Windsor to Collingwood. In generations prior, BME denominations functioned as terminuses on the Underground Railroad — a place where those fleeing slavery could be sheltered and begin planning a new life in freedom.
Since its founding in 1856, the Brantford church has been a place where families formed community, gathering and worshiping together away from any prejudice they might experience in wider society. For Tracy, the church symbolized something much more personal — family. “You met your family, uncles, aunts — everybody was there at church. It was a meeting ground.”
Tracy holds photos from a service at the S.R Drake Memorial BME Church in Brantford. Much of the congregation were her family members. Photo credit Sarah Evans.
Tracy Cain’s words, followed through by her actions are a testament to the wisdom of those who came before her. “We are not all that different,” she says, “We all feel joy. We all feel pain.” Recently, while tracing her family heritage online, she connected with someone she believed to be a relative. To her surprise, the lady on the other side of the screen was a white woman — the descendant of an abolitionist who helped one of Tracy’s ancestors on his path to freedom. Presented with the option, a man who surely chose to be on the right side of history. A history, Tracy says, that we each have the opportunity to create every day. As she tells her children, “Your legacy is the history of generations to come.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brantford’s native son, Angel spent much of his life living in the far reaches of Canada. After graduating from Dalhousie University, he began a career as a public servant and later in human rights. Meanwhile, remaining strongly rooted in the arts - DJing, managing musicians, producing films, and performing on Broadway. Angel strongly believes in the power the arts have to inspire, and transform communities and people. He is currently a final year Law student, and is excited to help tell stories from his hometown.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Born on a frigid winter's night, Sarah Evans knew early on that the only way to warm her soul was through art. During her time studying Film and Video Production at York U, Sarah discovered her love for photography and has been shooting ever since. Other things Sarah has done is worked on film and television sets, painted a terrible mural in high school, opened a floral business and bitten into a paintball (it wasn't a chocolate covered blueberry!).
I had the privilege of connecting with Tracy in regards to the Legacy of Canada’s segregated No2 Construction Battalion. She shared a picture of a rare 102 year old invitation to a tablet unveiling at Queen’s Park that honoured the fallen members of WWI No 2 Construction Battalion. We used the image in our exhibit for the Owen Sound 150th Emancipation Festival event at Grey Roots Museum.
Love the article blessed to know the family and not surprised they are a big part of the history in their community. I look forward to the next chapter, as the legacy continues with the next generation. 🙏🏿 ❤️
I am blessed to have known the Johnson family. As a black woman born and raised in the city of Brantford this family made a great and wonderful impact in my life. God bless