Critical Cycling: Race and Memory On an Old Stagecoach Route

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This is the tenth in a series, “History En Vélo,” about cycling and thinking historically, shared with Active History.


It was one of the most important stagecoach routes in the early 1800s. Then, travelling the Toronto-Kingston-Montreal route took about a week. We had a weekend to cycle roughly 300 kilometres, covering the Toronto to Kingston portion of the trail. 

Biking Prince Edward County.

James Mink and his daughter Mary Mink were the inspiration for the bike ride. He was one of the four livery stables keepers listed in Roswell’s 1850 City of Toronto Directory. James Mink was Black. He was a successful businessman, making his fortune from operating the Toronto to Kingston stagecoach, delivering mail and transporting passengers. We started the ride in downtown Toronto, close to where Mink’s hotel and stables once stood. 

The search for Black history, and a love of outdoor recreation, drives my adventure trips. These journeys are not just play; they are a way of honouring and memoralising the long Black presence in Canada. Black people are typically erased from Canadian history texts, or are confined to the margins and footnotes (Mackey, 2010; Shadd, 2010). Our absented presence underlines the fiction that Black people are either recent immigrants, or arrived to find freedom here via the Underground Railroad in the 1800s (Walcott, 2003). This fiction disappears the 200 years of slavery from the Canadian historical memory (Cooper, 2007; Henry, 2010). 

On our bike ride, we cycled along half-quiet and rolling country roads with farms on both sides. Acres of corn danced in the summer breeze. Hay bales drying in the fields were reminders that autumn was waiting. The route was popular with cyclists as we met scores each day. We too joined in the nods and finger waves – the greetings and recognition of the sweaty lycra-padded-shorts tribe! – as cyclists passed each other on the way.

The bike route.

We stopped to read all the heritage plaques that we saw. We encountered many, and not one mentioned Black history. Indigenous history was scarcely acknowledged, and their continuous presence elided. Heritage plaques are not neutral. They honour the coming of the white settlers and their so-called taming of the wild land. As markers of historical memory, heritage plaques reify settler-colonialism.

In the white spatial imaginary, Black people are expected to be in the city (Lipsitz, 2011). We are seen as a surprise, as out of place, when we show up in places that are coded as white spaces (McKittrick, 2006), places such as the countryside or the wilderness (Finney, 2014). Recreation is also racially coded, with assumptions about which bodies are expected to engage in particular activities. Phillip Dwight Morgan experienced this when he cycled across Canada for fun (Morgan, 2019). He received a triple dose of being othered: for being Black, for being in nature, and for cycling. 

The author and her bicycle.

On our bike ride we took breaks at pretty cafes with verandahs or patios. Many of these were former stagecoach inns, where passengers ate and rested for the night. The horses were changed there too. Villages and towns grew up around some of the stagecoach inns. Energised by tea and muffins we were soon back in the saddle. Sore knees and a sensitive crotch were minor irritants to be managed. We had to make it to Mink’s livery stables in Kingston. 

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” wrote Susan B. Anthony, in 1896. This quote by the U.S.A. feminist, and campaigner for women’s right to vote, is repeated often. However, what is not mentioned is that Anthony was speaking only for and about white women. Black women, and Black men, did not have the same freedom to roam, or to vote. 

Just as how racialisation drives the spatial imaginary, it also drives what I am calling the mobilities imaginary. Mobilities, both historical and current, is entangled with power and privilege. The politics of mobility shapes who is free to rove and who is not (Cresswell, 2010). Mobility is the white norm; immobility is the Black norm, imposed and reinforced by systemic state violence, from slavery to the present (Cole, 2020; Maynard, 2017). 

Cycling while Black is real. Charles T. Brown, a transportation equity and justice planner, refers to this as arrested mobility (Brown, 2021). Thus, Black cyclists are more likely to be stopped, and fined by the police; there are fewer bike lanes in Black neighbourhoods; and bicycle advocacy groups are dominated by white people (Agyeman & Doran, 2021; Lubitow, 2017). Not much has changed in the cycling world since the police murder of George Floyd, close to a bike lane (Butler, 2021). 

James Mink would have stopped at some of the same places that we did. His life story was international news in the mid-nineteenth century. A prominent businessman in Toronto, Mink promised a fabulous dowry for his biracial daughter, Mary, to a white man who then sold his new bride into slavery in the South. James Mink would then spend what was left of his fortune to rescue his daughter from a state of moral peril. The story was so scandalous and sensational that it fevered the imagination in Britain, Canada and the USA. Over a century later, in 1995, it was made into the film Captive Heart: The James Mink Story.

The problem is that the entire story – with the exception of Mink’s prominence in the Black community – is a historical fake. Although it was repeatedly debunked by the Black community at the time, the story took on a life of its own. Recent scholarship reveals that it was created and propagated by the pro-slavery lobby to show Black people’s unfitness for freedom (Petrin, 2016). Newspapers promoted the story, ignoring the real life of Mary Mink, and preferring the stereotypic trope of the tragic mulatto. It was the perfect cultural script for the dangers of miscegenation, and functioned to keep Black women in their expected place.

Knowing history is one thing, cycling thorough the geographies of history evokes a different feeling. The landscapes of Mink’s and my time are very different – his had more farms and forests, mine has cars and concrete. Yet, our worlds touch due to the route, and, in doing so, it collapsed time and space. The geography of the land determined the route. The modern road with its signed bike route is built on top of Mink’s pioneers’ stagecoach way, and these in turn are built on top of ancient Indigenous trails. 

On our bike ride, histories bled in to each other, and historical legacies confronted each other. I thought of James Mink and Mary Mink. He was the son of a slave, who was owned by a United Empire Loyalist settler. Fleeing the fallout of the American Revolution, the Loyalists arrived in Canada with all their possessions, including slaves. The many heritage plaques to the Loyalists that we saw did not mention the Black people, enslaved or free, who cleared their land for farming, or who operated the all-important mills and stagecoach routes. 

Ghosts came along on our bike ride, insisting that we pay attention to them. Their hauntings and warnings are part of the cognitive map of Black people, and complicate our relationship to outdoor recreation (Finney, 2014). For us cycling from Toronto to Kingston was fun. Our ghostly companions were a reminder of our equally complicated relationship to the land. The day after we returned to Toronto, I walked up to the Necropolis Cemetery where James Mink is buried. Our bike ride to Kingston, along his old stagecoach route, was a way of marking his historical significance. Black history matters. 

All photographs by the author.


References

Agyeman, J., & Doran, A. (2021). “‘You want protected bike lanes, I want protected Black children. Let’s link’: equity, justice, and the barriers to active transportation in North America.” Local Environment, 1-18.

Brown, C. (2021, October 26). Arrested Mobility. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/ctbrown1911

Butler, T. (2021, July 1). “Last Year, the Bike Industry Promised Inclusivity. But Advocacy Allies Still Don’t Get It.” Bicycling. https://www.bicycling.com/culture/a36688353/bike-industry-inclusive-safety/

Cole, D. (2020). The skin we’re in: A year of black resistance and power. Doubleday Canada.

Cooper, A. (2007). The hanging of Angélique: The untold story of Canadian slavery and the burning of Old Montreal. University of Georgia Press.

Cresswell, T. (2010). “Towards a politics of mobility.” Environment and Planning D: society and space, 28(1), 17-31.

Finney, C. (2014). Black faces, white spaces: Reimagining the relationship of African Americans to the great outdoors. UNC Press Books.

Henry, N. L. (2010). Emancipation Day: Celebrating freedom in Canada. Dundurn.

Lipsitz, G. (2011). How racism takes place. Temple University Press.

Lubitow, A. (2017). Narratives of marginalized cyclists: understanding obstacles to utilitarian cycling among women and minorities in Portland, OR (No. NITC-SS-994). Portland State University. National Institute for Transportation and Communities.

Mackey, F. (2010). Done with slavery: The Black fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 (Vol. 21). McGill-Queen’s University Press-MQUP.

Maynard, R. (2017). Policing Black lives: State violence in Canada from slavery to the present. Fernwood Publishing.

McKittrick, K. (2006). Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. U of Minnesota Press.

Morgan, Phillip Dwight (2019, January 24). “Race, Privilege, and the Canadian Wilderness.” The Walrus. https://thewalrus.ca/race-privilege-and-the-canadian-wilderness/

Petrin, G. (2016). The Myth of Mary Mink: Representation of Black Women in Toronto in the Nineteenth Century. Ontario History, 108(1), 92-110.

Shadd, A. (2010). The journey from tollgate to parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton. Dundurn.

Walcott, R. (2003). Black like who?: Writing black Canada. Insomniac Press.

   

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Jacqueline L. Scott is a PhD student in Social Justice Education, University of Toronto. Her research is on the perception of the wilderness in the Black imagination. In other words, how to make outdoor recreation, and the broader environmentalism, more accessible for Black Canadians. She has written about her research for CBC, The Conversation, and the Greenbelt Foundation. Follow her work at https://blackoutdoors.wordpress.com.

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