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He was the eldest of 11 children of United Empire Loyalist Johan Herkimer's slave, named Mink. James Mink became a millionaire, along with his brother, George. Both started hotels, liveries and coach services, first in Kingston Ontario. Then James moved to Toronto in the 1840s, while his brother remained in Kingston Ontario. They would transport travellers between Toronto and Kingston, which was then the capital city of Upper Canada; a colony of Great Britain. The brothers would transport their passengers to the other's city by meeting at the halfway point in Brighton Ontario; exchange passengers and get fresh horses, and then return home with the passengers. They also earned the respect of the public and ended up being assigned the mail runs; George would take the mail from Kingston Ontario to Montreal, while James took it to Kingston and other towns in the area of Toronto. James' hotel was used as a voting station in Toronto elections and the mayor hired his coach service for his inauguration in the 1850s. Farmers outside Toronto would stay at his hotel when they came to town to sell their produce at the farmer's St. Lawrence Market, not far from the hotel. Many Torontonians used his livery service, as did the Sheriff of the city.
Both brothers started the first public transit system in their respective cities; James took people from the Town of Yorkville to downtown's St. Lawrence market.
James Mink married a white Irish immigrant, Elizabeth, as did many free Black men at that time. The Irish girls often arrived in Canada penniless and without families so priests often arranged marriages with single men who were making a decent living. James and Elizabeth had a daughter, Minnie, but in the movie she was called, "Mary." In real life, they may have had some other children. Because they were of mixed race, they believed in the races "blending together as naturally as two tributaries forming into one river." (a common theme amongst many Free, Canadian Blacks at that time when slavery still plagued America). In other words, many as today, believe in intermarriage. One theory is that many Black people of the day felt that there was better opportunity for their children if their skin was lighter, but this could be disputed. The political climate of the day in Toronto had the Irish Protestants protesting for equal rights, talk always was about slavery in America, especially after the American Revolution when the British lost the war. They would often chastise the Americans for having as their slogan, "All men were created equal ... and entitled to the unalienable rights of life, liberty and freedom," while denying it to women, aboriginals and Black people. Canada had abolished slavery in the 1830s.
It was not unusual for millionaires of the day to arrange marriages; so James Mink offered a substantial dowry for his daughter's hand; some research report about $10,000, which would have bought a city block in 1852! A man named William Johnson married their daughter, Minnie, (a nickname given to a daughter with the same name as her mother and records found in the archives of University of Toronto's Victoria College) Johnson took the dowry and Minnie on a honeymoon to the United States, where he then sold her into slavery to a Virginian tobacco plantation owner.
Virginia tobacco plantations had used up their fertile soil in the 1850s and were on the verge of bankruptcy so they began to breed their chattel, which sadly included their slaves. They'd sell their off-spring to the labour intensive southern states like South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia, where cotton was a big resource. Perhaps that is why she was sold for $1,500 - also a significant amount in those days!
Contrary to the movie, research reveals that the real James Mink learned of his daughter's plight and went through a lot of red tape to get the British to buy her back on his behalf. Census records show that she was living with a son on Mink's farm on the Don and Danforth Road in Toronto in 1862. (now Danforth Road between Pape and Carlaw Streets).
In the movie version Mink, pretending to be his wife's slave, traveled to the American South and was successful in rescuing Mary/Minnie and several other slaves. This was created for dramatic effect to explore the then male dominated relationships in marriage as well as slavery in America, but it wasn't played out as written in more accurate researched and more dramatic original screenplay.
Like all American movies, it had to end with a happy ending, making James Mink look like a hero. Contrary to the movie, he never arranged the marriage of his daughter for his own political gain. He never was interested in political office but his brother, George, in Kingston Ontario, was nominated as an alderman during an election. A transcript was found at Queen's University where George told voters in a passionate speech that he didn't put his name forward but some white people did to challenge a particular candidate and it was a racially motivated move. He never sought political office either. But American screenwriters made it appear that James Mink married his daughter off like this for his own personal, financial gain. Not so!
Some research on the true story exists in the Toronto Public Research Library as well as the Archives for the Province of Ontario, but they are not all correct. More accurate facts exist in "Landmarks of Toronto."
History and the movie stand apart, but both are intriguing stories for their own purposes. Mink's story was told in the movie Captive Heart: The James Mink Story, starring Lou Gossett, Jr. as James Mink and Kate Nelligan as his wife. Afro-American actress, Ruby Dee, played a significant part as did Michael J. White.
In real life, after Minnie returned to Toronto, it appears she had a son; she lived with her family and then an arsonist's fire was set to the Mink hotel and livery. They lost everything. Eventually, trains transported people and so George and James Mink's business fizzled away. James Mink died in 1866 and it appears he was living alone near today's Windsor Arms Hotel in Toronto. He is buried in the Riverdale Cemetery in the area of Toronto known as Cabbagetown.
Recollections and Records of Toronto of Old WITH REFERENCES TO BRANTFORD, KINGSTON AND OTHER CANADIAN TOWNS by W. H. PEARSON -TORONTO 1914 p. 63-64
Owen Thomas, "A Bitter History" Toronto Star Starweek 13 April 1996