Picture the late 1890s and early 1900s in Ottawa. The well-off raced their horses on the frozen Ottawa River in winter, and at Lansdowne Park in summer. And there was one man whom the city’s élite sought out to tend to their prized equines: Paul Barber.
Barber knew it all: from raising young horses, to caring for them when they were ill, to preparing the animals for the big competitions.
The horse trainer was unlike the many brash and rugged Irish and French men living in Ottawa when it had a bustling lumber industry. Instead, Barber possessed the finest of social graces – he was genteel, confident but quiet.
He was also different from the others, in that he had been born a slave in Kentucky. He became one of Ottawa’s earliest black permanent residents.
It’s almost certain that Barber faced racism in the nation’s capital – after all, it was the era in which Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier wanted to ban black American immigration – but Barber, a polite, religious man possessing expertise no one else could top, garnered the respect of many residents. He would always say Ottawa, where he lived most of his life, was a welcoming place for him.
When Barber died in 1929, newspaper obituaries referred to him as “whom none other of his race is better known in the city.” The Ottawa Free Press said he was “a well-known horse trainer of the Capital,” and the Ottawa Journal described him as “a well-known resident of the Capital.” Although training horses didn’t pay lucratively, by most measures Paul Barber was a successful man.
“Ottawa was a place of acceptance of others for what they brought to the community,” says Tom Barber, Paul’s grandson. “(It) was a community whose economy was largely based on the lumber industry. There was plenty of money to go round. People with skills had no problem getting employment and earning a decent living.”
Tom discovered that Paul had been born to slave parents in 1848 in Louisville, at the time a major hub for slave trading. Paul’s original last name was Smith, the name of his first owners. At age four, he came into the possession of Philetus Swift Barber. The aristocratic Philetus died in 1894 with more than $2 million to his estate (about $70 million in Canadian dollars today).
Paul acquired his knowledge of horses – training, riding, care for them – on the Barber farms in Bardstown, Kentucky. He also trained some of Philetus’s line of fast trotters to race.
Like many freed slaves after emancipation in 1865, Paul stayed and worked with his former owner for several years. In 1910, he told the Free Press in Ottawa that he never felt mistreated and had made many tips. He eventually departed Bardstown; the Barbers gave him $100 and a suit of clothes for the journey.
After moving throughout the United States, Paul Barber made his first appearance in Ottawa’s city directory in 1887. Mass-produced automobiles were still decades away and Ottawa’s electrified streetcar system would only start to take shape in the 1890s. It didn’t take long for Barber to begin working with horses.
“Paul had come from a place (Kentucky) highly regarded as the mecca of horse breeding and training,” Tom Barber says. “His experience and knowledge was highly sought after.”
Paul Barber often lived with the families he worked for, such as that of J.C. Roger, president of the Canadian Granite Works, in New Edinburgh. There was also the MacCandlish family, which owned residences and horse stables on property between Somerset and Gladstone streets. He also endeared himself to industrialist Sir Henry Bate, the first chairman of the Ottawa Improvement Commission (now the National Capital Commission) and a member of the Ottawa Horseman’s Club.
Tom has also discovered Paul trained horses for the Ottawa police and speculates he may have also done the same for parliamentarians who stayed in Ottawa during winter sessions. His list of élite clients might have helped insulate him from racism. “When the élite embrace you, where does it put the others?” says Tom. “You’re basically protected. Your work is your value.”
Paul Barber notably trained horses to race in popular competitions on the frozen Ottawa River. There, he met Elizabeth Brown, a white woman originally from Renfrew County and 20 years his junior.
“He was a sportsman,” says Tom, comparing Paul’s presence at races to that of an all-star athlete at sporting events. “People would admire him and people would want to be with him and so there’s a certain status of knowing this fellow.”
In 1892, Paul and Elizabeth wed at the Congregational Church at Albert and Elgin streets in what is the first known interracial black-white marriage ceremony in Ottawa.
They then travelled to Admaston, outside of Renfrew, to inform Elizabeth’s parents of their marriage. They arrived at night, with Paul putting away the horse and buggy while Elizabeth went inside the home. Barber family lore has it that upon seeing Paul for the first time, Elizabeth’s mother exclaimed, “Good God, you married the devil!”
It’s not clear if Paul’s skin colour or the way he may have dressed for the journey provoked his mother-in-law’s startled cry, but it is clear that the family accepted him. In fact, Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Janet, married Alex Rodgers, a black man and stepbrother of Paul, also from the southern United States.
Paul and Elizabeth Barber had four boys and one girl, and resided in Lowertown and Sandy Hill.
The oldest, Paul Barber Jr., worked at the corner of Bank and Sparks streets selling newspapers. He was known for his booming voice, yelling “paper-e journal n’ citizen, five o’ clock edition!” Among Paul Jr.’s regular customers were R.B. Bennett and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Tom says a number of boys who eventually worked for him became wealthy, saying they learned the value of the dollar from Paul Jr.
Another descendant was Jack Barber, the legendary local speed skater. He was once the equipment manager of the early Ottawa Senators and played hockey with local Lowertown boy Francis “King” Clancy. Jack also trained Canadian Olympian Gerry Cassan and is an inductee of the Greater Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.
Paul Barber Sr. found less and less work due to the rise of the automobile in the early 20th century. His last two decades were plagued with chronic bronchitis and rheumatism.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that Ottawa saw a true influx of black residents, through immigration from former British colonies in the Caribbean. Since the Immigration Act was revised in 1976, the city has seen black residents arrive from countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia. Today, black Canadians are the largest group of visible minorities in Ottawa.
In August 2016, a small street in Lowertown was named after Paul Barber Sr., a testament to how deeply the Barber family story is deeply embedded in the history of Ottawa.
“They respected my grandfather,” Tom says, “for what he had to show them.”
Carleton University journalism student Jolson Lim is a Canada 150 apprentice with the Ottawa Citizen.
RESEARCHING THE BARBERS
Tom Barber, 63, was told from an early age bits and pieces of his family’s history.
His elder uncle, Jack, had once shown him an old Free Press article in which the wife of a former slave owner mentioned Paul Barber in her will. Jack told Tom he wanted “everyone to know how great my grandfather was.”
“We’ve always known things, that we were among the first black families to stay (in Ottawa),” says Tom. “(But) there was no evidence of that other than family photographs to substantiate where our place in Ottawa was.”
So Tom Barber set about thoroughly researching his family’s history in the 2000s. He amassed a collection of newspaper clippings, recorded interviews with family members, and other artifacts – both of family members and other early black Ottawans.
Tom’s research brought him to Kentucky in 2002. He visited Bardstown, the location of the property where Paul Barber had once lived. He also met the descendants of his grandfather’s former owner in Springfield, whom Tom says were more than kind in helping him research his roots.
With generous help from local residents, Tom uncovered a treasure trove of records about his grandfather. He found Paul’s year of birth, where he stayed, and that he had been in a previous marriage (prior to marrying Elizabeth in Canada) with a woman of mixed race.
“All I have to say is God was with me,” Tom says of his luck researching.
Tom plans to eventually leave his collection of newspaper clipping to the city’s Family Archives collection, though his research is not finished yet. He hasn’t traced the family lineage past Paul and wants to write more about his great-aunt Jeanette, who operated a railway porter’s rooming house on Besserer Street.
PAUL BARBER, AT A GLANCE:
• Born in Louisville Kentucky in 1848 to slave parents.
• Emancipated following ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865.
• Arrived in Ottawa in 1885, soon began work as a horse trainer for often wealthy clients.
• Married Elizabeth Brown, a white woman, on Oct. 26, 1892 at the Congregational Church.
• Died Feb. 13, 1929 in Ottawa. Interred at Notre Dame Cemetery
• Barber street in Lowertown named after him in August 2016.
Source: Ottawa Citizen