Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson, University of Toronto

Jim Crow and the Fugitive Slave Refugee Crisis in 19th Century Toronto

This paper will outline and attempt to understand a particular historical moment, during which an aggressive, out-of-control clown-like figure took advantage of the sudden movements of a desperate population to raise his own status and power, and through mockery stirred up race, prejudice and violence against a visible minority. This historical moment takes place in Toronto in the early 1840s, when the circus—a relatively new ‘technology’—appeared in Toronto, bringing with it the (also relatively ‘new’) blackface clown. Toronto’s black and abolitionist citizens tried to stop the appearance of this figure, presenting four petitions to the city government; but the government could not (or would not) act, in Toronto as in so many other communities. The history of this effort, and failure, bears closer examination, because its own unfolding pattern has been repeated so many times since, and because its legacy is so clearly resonant today.

Stephen Johnson is a Full Professor in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Toronto. He has published widely on race and performance history, creating digital humanities sites including the Juba Project ( and Theatre Documentation and Reconstruction Project ( Johnson is the author of Burnt Cork: Origins and Traditions of Blackface Minstrelsy (2013), part of an ongoing project on minstrelsy. He is also PI on the multimedia project Cross-Border Blackface: Traditions and Legacies of American Minstrelsy in Ontario. This groundbreaking project examines Canadians’ historical roles in blackface performance and is part of the ongoing project Fringes of Show Business: Touring and Resident Performance in Southern Ontario from 1860-1892, a database and analytical study of performance culture in pre- and post-confederation ‘Canada West,’ and both are sections of the research group “On the Road Again: A Digital Forum on the History of Entertainment and Culture.”