Slave revolts, the Underground Railroad and the Baptist Church: The rise and fall of the Black Hockey League
Contributed by JEAN DAMU*
WHEN something comes up missing or misplaced, occasionally it's not a bad idea to look for it in your neighbour's basement. In the case of the missing history of Black hockey players, Canada's basement is the most logical place to look.
Hockey, arguably the fastest and most exciting team sport to watch, has traditionally been considered a white man's game. And why wouldn't it? Hockey, adapted from a game played by the Mi'kmaq Indians, originated in Nova Scotia, Canada, a country even today with just a two per cent Black population. And that's up from one tenth of one per cent just 30 years ago.
Today, 50 years after the formation of the National Hockey League that now has 30 teams blanketing Canada and the U.S., there are 31 Blacks on NHL teams that employ a total of 600 players. As small a percentage as those 31 players represent, it is larger than one would logically assume to exist, because by and large, with the exception of Wayne Gretzky, the superhero of hockey, most players remain faceless.
Black life was not always so constrained in Canada. Even though historians downplay Canada's own sordid attempts at slavery, slavery did indeed exist there, though it was never economically as viable as it was in the more Southern colonies.
During the American revolution, thousands of formerly enslaved Blacks and freedmen fought on the side of the British loyalists, many in the Ethiopian Regiments and the Black Rangers, because they saw their struggle (rightly so as it turned out) as a fight against slavery.
At the war's unsuccessful (for them) conclusion and the guaranteed continuance of Black bondage in America, thousands of these freedom fighters and their families, known as the free Black Loyalists settled in the Canadian colonies during 1782-1784, of whom 3,548 resettled in Nova Scotia. Life was difficult for those of African descent in Nova Scotia, many taking the opportunity in 1796 to organize the first back-to-Africa movement and resettling in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Those who remained, both Black Loyalists, Maroons and the indigenous slaves brought earlier by the British, the French and rich white United Empire Loyalists, though leading marginalized lives, prospered throughout much of the 19th century. They participated in various industries and conscientiously helped to man the terminus of the Underground Railroad until the end of the Civil War. Then in times of relaxation Blacks gravitated toward the Baptist Church and played sports, the men mostly concentrating on baseball and hockey.
Much of the information in this article is taken from the book "Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925," by George and Darrill Fosty. The Fosty brothers are Canadian documentary film-makers and, like all Canadians, it seems, hockey freaks.
According to the Fosty's, Canadians first began to embrace hockey as a national sport as early as 1863 with the building of the first indoor hockey rink, an idea of eminent good sense in frigid Canada that would not be duplicated by football promoters in the United States for another 100 years.
With the development of indoor rinks, skating clubs in Canada seriously took up hockey and naturally enough in no time at all soon realized they could make money charging admission to the games. But from the start, Blacks were forced to lead a separate existence in the world of hockey and always found it difficult to schedule rink time at the indoor arenas.
For Canadians in general and Black Canadians in particular, here is where God and organized hockey joined hands. From the Fosty brothers, we learn that some Black pastors of the Baptist Church in Nova Scotia took to the idea of promoting hockey clubs as a way to build their church memberships. Baptist congregations maintained outdoor skating rinks and were enthusiastic spectators.
The Cornwallis Street Baptist Church of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the church that also provided much of the inspiration that went into the creation of the Black hockey league, including the coded language of the Underground Railroad that was memorialized in the names of various Black hockey teams.
While the social and political background of the Black hockey league is important and interesting, the real contributions made by the Black players were the athleticism and competitiveness they brought to the game. As best they could under the constraints of the skating technology of the day, Blacks speeded up the game, pushed the envelope of rules and brought the game beyond the "gentlemanly conduct" initially expected of players.
Many, many Blacks were outstanding players and were considered among Canada's finest, but some were standouts even among standouts. Henry "Braces" Franklyn of the Dartmouth Jubilees was one. At approximately 3 feet 6 inches, Franklyn must rank as one of history's smallest professional athletes.
As a goalie, he revolutionized the game by playing "on the ice." Previously, goalies had defended by standing up. Possibly because he was so close to the ice anyway, Franklyn would get on his knees or lay on the ice to defend the goal. Today that's standard play, but Franklyn was the first one.
Another was Eddie Martin of the Africville Sea Side and later the Halifax Eureka. It is thought that Martin originated the slap shot 50 years before it was legalized by the NHL.
The precarious existence of Canada's Black hockey league was tied directly to the precarious economics of Canada's Black communities in her Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Though the league prospered from 1895 through the early 1930s, there are no recorded games after 1935, when Canadian industrial concerns, notably railroads, began to buy up historically Black-owned properties and displace residents.
The NHL would not sign its first Black player, Willie O'Ree.
*Jean Damu chairs the California Coalition for H.R.-40, the African-American reparations bill annually introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and is the head of the Los Angeles chapter for N'COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America
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