One snowy night in the mid-1860s, the story goes, a horse-drawn sleigh carrying Globe founder and future father of Confederation George Brown nearly careened off the Don Mills Road and into the icy Don River. That a drunken livery driver was to blame incensed Brown, a staunch prohibitionist.
In many retellings, another young driver named William Peyton Hubbard – who, more than 30 years later, would become the first black person elected to Toronto city council – happens upon the scene in the nick of time and rescues Brown by the riverbank.
But in a 1934 interview with The Globe, just before Mr. Hubbard's death at 93 the following year, he himself makes no mention of any rescue. He was a baker, not a livery driver, at the time, he says, and only ended up becoming Mr. Brown's regular driver as a favour to his brother, Alex, who ran a stable and had trouble finding sober drivers for this important customer, who was angry about once nearly ending up in the Don.
Regardless, on his first ride with Mr. Brown, Mr. Hubbard found himself engaged in animated conversations about the city, its history and Mr. Brown's favourable views on the abolition of slavery. More rides, and conversations, followed. It was a relationship that may have planted the seeds of Hubbard's singularly remarkable political career, a career to be recognized on Saturday at the dedication of a new east-end park in his name.
Between 1893 and 1913, Mr. Hubbard – a child of freed slaves who fled Virginia to farm in Upper Canada in 1837 – would serve the city as an alderman (what we now call city councillors), and also vice-chairman of a powerful cabinet-like body called the board of control, a position second only to the mayor. He also served as acting mayor.
Revered as council's "Cicero" for his speeches, he became a leading civic figure, representing a white, wealthy ward. He was also a successful businessman in the city, at a time when black people were banned from many restaurants. But his skin colour was barely given a mention in The Globe's accounts of the time.
This weekend, politicians, community groups and Hubbard descendants from across Canada and the United States will christen Hubbard Park, a green space in front of the old Don Jail that is now part of Bridgepoint hospital, at Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East. The park's name was voted on by local residents, and it is not far from where Mr. Hubbard lived in a grand home on Broadview Avenue.
His memory was neglected for years. When the city government abandoned Old City Hall for New City Hall in 1965, a grand portrait of Mr. Hubbard that had graced the walls of the old building for years was left in a storage room until 1976, when a new interest in black history was emerging. (Since the late 1980s, the city has also issued an award for activists in his name.)
That portrait hangs in the office of Toronto's only sitting black councillor, Scarborough's Michael Thompson, but even he had never heard of Mr. Hubbard until he began researching his story while working as a political aide at city hall in the late 1990s.
Mr. Hubbard's great-granddaughter, Lorraine Hubbard, 62, was a founding member of the Ontario Black History Society in the 1970s. She said that growing up there was not much talk about how her great-grandfather was a racial-boundary-smashing politician.
"The family really didn't make a big deal of it," she said in an interview from her home in Coquitlam, B.C. "I remember as a young child, I didn't even know what a damn alderman was."
The naming of the park – in an area predominantly made up of white and Chinese communities – comes as the city wrestles with a number of racial issues. Over the past year, activists from Black Lives Matter have made headlines protesting over police shootings and the issue of "carding" black men.
"In these days of, I will call them, fragile race relations, I think it's really incredible that my constituents put forward his name, voted overwhelmingly for his name, saying we have to honour this man," local Councillor Paula Fletcher said. "It's very Toronto."
According to Globe coverage, Mr. Hubbard did not explicitly champion black causes. But he once wrote in a letter to a friend: "I have always felt that I am a representative of a race hitherto despised, but given fair opportunity would be able to command esteem."
He was often praised for his financial acumen, and for fighting to have the powerful board of control directly elected by ratepayers, not appointed by city council. But he did come to the aid of the underdog: He once sided with small Chinese laundry owners in a battle with larger laundry businesses, and presented a petition calling for an end to "attacks on the Jewish religion" by a street preacher.
Mr. Hubbard's signature political fights were on the main battleground of that era in municipal politics: the crusade to put utilities, such as water and power, under public control. Campaigning for a public hydro utility in 1908, he earned the praise of Adam Beck, the architect of Ontario's publicly-owned power system. But he ended up losing his seat. (As fate would have it, the naming of the park comes as Queen's Park begins to sell off Ontario Hydro, and Toronto's government mulls whether to sell at least part of Toronto Hydro.)
"Grand Old Man Dies," The Globe reported on his death in 1935. Hundreds attended Mr. Hubbard's funeral. Many of the dignitaries of the day who acted as his honorary pallbearers now have things named after them in the city: An Island ferry is named for Sam McBride, a rink for George Ramsden, and a water-treatment plant for R.C. Harris. Now, William P. Hubbard finally has his park.