Armistead Pride Taylor
His family was banned from a Toronto roller skating club for being Black. He fought back in court.
Before Viola Desmond refused to leave the whites-only section of a Nova Scotia theatre and Hugh Burnett led sit-ins at restaurants unwilling to serve Black customers, a barber in Toronto pushed back against racial intolerance.
During the first decade of the 20th century, a roller-skating craze swept North America. Rinks sprang up in cities across the continent and Toronto was no exception. Citizens had several options including Victoria Rink on Huron Street and Granite Club Roller Rink at 519 Church. Roller skating appealed to all ages. The craze was so popular sporting goods stores quickly ran short of skates. Participants were required to rent skates from rinks. Ads placed in newspapers by competing arenas boasted “Strictly select patronage.”
The Taylors lived in a home in the shadow of St. James Cathedral on Francis Street. On a cool November evening in 1906, Arthur Taylor, 12, and his mother, Lydia, dressed against the chill and boarded a Toronto Railway Co. streetcar for the short ride north to the Granite Club, a forerunner of the city’s current Granite Club. After purchasing tickets and entering, they queued up to rent skates. Before they could join the crowd on the floor, however, an attendant instructed by management informed them they were unwelcome because they were Black.
Mother and son returned home humiliated.
The Granite Club chose the wrong family to discriminate against. Arthur’s father, the successful barber Armistead Pride Taylor, refused to take the slight lying down. Incensed, Taylor rushed to the courthouse at city hall and issued a civil claim for $50 in damages.
Armistead Taylor was born a freeman of colour in Virginia in 1845. After visiting an aunt in Toronto in 1870, she convinced him to settle here. Prior to the move, he wed Lydia Hegetscweiler in Virginia and relocated north of the border with his new wife.
The newlyweds initially resided in Yorkville, where Taylor opened a barbershop. Within a decade, he earned a reputation for challenging social norms. Fined two dollars for violating the Lord’s Day Act — Taylor shaved a customer on a Sunday — he won the case on appeal.
Taylor descendant Paul de la Rosa of Toronto is familiar with his ancestry but remained unaware of the specific indignity experienced by his great-grandmother and great-uncle.
What does de la Rosa suppose gave his great-grandfather confidence to challenge the WASP establishment? De la Rosa speculates, “Being considered freeborn in a time of slavery gave him hope for a better life. His move from the States to Canada was also part of that. Self-esteem, pride, and a determination not to go backwards … probably were driving forces. Along with some rage!”
The Taylor family eventually grew to 10 children. By then the barber had standing in the community. He opened the first bathhouse in Yorkville and managed barbershop facilities at the Queen’s Hotel. A talented musician, he was a member of local marching bands.
Lydia and Armistead valued education for their children. Those who survived into adulthood would pursue higher education, going on to make valuable contributions in the fields of medicine and law, in Canada as well as south of the border.
Judge Frederick Morson heard the case before Christmas 1906. With a reputation for fairness, the magistrate was known to dispense swift justice. The defence was mounted by Edward Bayly, a skilled lawyer later appointed deputy attorney general to the province of Ontario.
Hotelier Abram Orpen, a former bookie with previous run-ins with authorities, managed the rink. In years to come, Orpen would establish Dufferin Park Racetrack. The successful venture led Orpen to open additional horse tracks throughout the province. As his wealth and influence grew, he became a friend to politicians and a favourite son of the city.
At trial, the lawyer representing the Granite Club claimed the recreational and social club was not liable for damages since Orpen leased the rink from them for his own purposes.
From the witness box, Armistead Taylor surmised staff initially permitted his light-skinned wife and son entrance assuming they were white. For his part, Orpen unabashedly testified ordering mother and son from the rink after discovering they were Black. Upon hearing arguments, Judge Morson admitted never having adjudicated a race-based case such as this. Court was adjourned to allow his honour to examine Canadian jurisprudence and case precedents.
Two weeks later a decision was rendered. In a challenge against the WASP establishment of the day, a verdict in the Taylors’ favour seemed unlikely. Win or lose, Taylor would not tolerate the indignity afforded his wife and son.
He refused to back down and his tenacity paid off. This doggedness doesn’t surprise de la Rosa. It runs in the family. “I attended a large family reunion many years ago,” he explained, “During this reunion, I actually saw a bill of sale for one of my ancestors that had bought himself! It seemed that that determination and drive was alive then, and was passed down.”
Judge Morson’s judgment read, “In this country nobody has a right to subject anybody to indignities because of his colour. Be a man or woman coloured … he or she is entitled to respect and protection.” Reflective of the times, however, he stated that if management intended to deny entry based on skin colour, a notice should have been conspicuously posted.
The judge denied Taylor’s claim for punitive damages but ordered the Granite Club to reimburse the ticket cost.
What effect the small victory had on young Arthur is impossible to say but it is worth noting, after completing his education in Toronto, the young man attended Lincoln University in Philadelphia and then Yale to study law. He would become assistant district attorney for the District of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Why isn’t the Taylor victory widely known? De la Rosa ponders. “How many know that Toronto once had a Black mayor?” (William Peyton Hubbard, elected Toronto’s first Black alderman in 1894, served as acting mayor on several occasions.) There were schools and streets named after prominent Black leaders in the community that have quietly had their names changed over time, and those stories have been lost to history as well.”
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star under the title, His family was banned from a Toronto roller skating club for being Black. He fought back in court
Photographs courtesy of Paul de la Rosa