Rick Bell is a St catherines native with ancestry linking him to the history of fugitive slave settlement in the Niagara region both through his adoptive parents and his own African American ancestry. Bell was adopted in 1949 by Richard Bell and Iris Sloman and grew up on Prospect avenue in the facer street district. Bell’s recollections of growing up in the region highlight several dimensions of the African Canadian experience. From confronting institutionalised racism as the regions first black firefighter hired in 1979, to his work with fellow Canadians in attempting to retrieve lost histories from within the community, Bell’s memories highlight the ways in which issues of race, class, religion and culture manifest and are navigated from his own perspective as an African Canadian man.
1. Did you learn about the Niagara Freedom Trail as a child growing up in St Catherine’s?
Actually no. In my family there seems to have been an effort to keep the fact that we had been slaves quiet. This is especially sad for me because my Dad's mother could have taught me so much about our past. She may have actually known Harriet Tubman.
2. Where were your parents born? (Only if you know)
My father was born in St.Catharines. My mother in Lucan Ontario. You'll notice that most of my artifacts are from my mother's side of the family. Amazing history which includes their escape to freedom in Canada in 1829.
3. What would you say is one of your fondest childhood memories?
Hands down it was the relationship between my mother's family and the rest of us. There is a picture of the "Christmas Table" at my Grandmother Slomon's house. Seated are English, Irish Catholic, Irish Protestant, Blacks, and Mohawk First Nations. All family and although people don't believe it, never a harsh word spoken! What a culture shock it was to see families fighting with each other as I grew older.
4. Was Black History a part of your upbringing? whether inside or outside of the home?
In the 50s and 60s a lot of Canadian Black History was being past on through "old wives tales". so when the government made an effort to support Black issues I was asked by persons I am required not to mention to make an effort to bring the Black community together, weed out the untruths, and collect and offer the truth about our plight. I failed miserably. I would work night shifts, do two house fires and a car wreck and instead of going home to rest, shower up and go out on an all day fact finding mission with the Ministry Of Culture and Tourism all the while trying to bring folks together for the benefit of all. You see at the time there were a hand full of church groups and individuals who "owned" all the artifacts. They rightly cherished them and defended them with their lives. Giving up ownership of these things to create a "National" bank of knowledge was not something they could trust.
5. Do you think you are like your mother/father or both? If so, how are you like them?
I am so much like both. I must admit it wasn't until my middle years that I felt very close to my mother. Growing up my mother had done the "Wifely Things". Stayed home, cooked and cleaned ect. I thought that all women did that. It wasn't until my father was dying of cancer that mom and I really became close. The doctor had called me during the day and told me my dad did not have long to live. My mom was going out that night with her mother and sisters so I didn't want to give her the news until she got home. When the girls got home for tea and cookies I had to sit them all down and give them the news. I was 22 and for the first time in my life I had to stand up and be the man of the house.
My father was very religious. Sent me to every church in Niagara trying to get me "hooked" but I hated church. In 1961 I was 11. My dad took mom and I to a Billy Graham Crusade in Tonawanda Ny. On the way home I told my father that if he ever made me go to church again I would run away, I was 11!. He never made me go to church again. In the 50s my Dad would buy new immigrants groceries. My mother had fits! but Dad kept doing it. I remember a Russian guy would always come asking for money. My Dad would say No! your just going to buy Vodka. So we put the guy in the car and went to the grocery store. We bought two bags of food, took the guy home to his wife and 7 kids, and put the food on their table. Dad would always take me on these missions. I remember thinking "Wow, Mom is going to be mad!!!!" At my father's funeral the funeral director took me aside and asked me if my Dad had been a member of government or something. I said "No, he was Head Electrician at Kimberly Clarke Paper Mill". When I asked "why do you ask", he replied, "we have never seen so many people show up for any funeral we've had". So I've tried to build my life on the background I grew up in. Could have done a lot worse?
6. What religion were you raised in? Did you go to church or a place of prayer? If so what was it like?
I attended the Anglican Church. At the time it was a brand new building just around the corner. My father made me "sample" other denominations. Hey! It might have been my personal experience but from the time I was very young I witnessed sex abuse and just plain bullshit with organized religion.
7. Was music apart of your childhood?
From the time I was born, I had access to the huge player piano at my grandmother's house. When my little fingers just couldn't punch out a song, I could always put in a roll and sound fantastic by just pumping my feet!!! It was always "there". Music came easy to me. My parents figured the only way for a Black kid to make it was either sports or music. I did well. Won just about every competition I entered which for me culminated when I was 16 and I preformed a solo with symphony back up at Massey Hall in Toronto. When the house lights came on there were my parents beaming with joy. I and them were the only Black faces in the hall and I knew how proud of me they were and among all those people how proud they were of themselves. Right when I could have gone on to higher levels I took a punch in the mouth and chipped my teeth which is a disaster for a trumpet player. Now I could only do the bar scene and cheap gigs.
8. Did you have any family traditions growing up? If so, could you elaborate on this?
We observed all the English Protestant traditions. As I said before, never a harsh word was spoken. My father had to retreat to "private" phone calls to carry on his religious thoughts.
9. How many children did your mother have?
None. I was adopted. On his death bed my father told me he was indeed my father. A long story I am not sure I have the rite to share.
10. Can you describe one of the most important things your parents taught to you?
Without a doubt, How I saw how they shared and gave to others. Believe me for the most part we took in as much as we put out.
11. Can you describe your childhood home? Or a room you remember vividly?
In the 60s. a lot of men left where they were and went to the new G.M. plant. High wages, brand new plant. My Dad had started sweeping the floors at Woolworhts in down town St.Catharines. Worked his way up to assistant manager. Those promotions had been done "in store". but when it came down to a new manager for the place two guys came down from Toronto and nearly shit themselves to see a Black man in such a position. Not only could he not become manager, they didn't want him to hold his assistant managers' position. He was let go. Prior to the G.M. plant coming to town my Dad had been hired again sweeping the floors at what became Kimberly Clark paper mill. He was offered an electrical apprenticeship and went on to become "Head Electrician". When others left for the new G.M. plant, my Dad refused to go out of loyalty to K.C. My family home was a renovated "War Time" house. We had a large garden and the house was well maintained by my father, and kept spotless by my mother. Many of my friends houses were dirty and in disrepair and I often wondered why anyone would want to live in those conditions. Having no siblings, I spent a lot of time alone mostly outdoors hiking through the woods.
Music was a constant during my early years. I had the best teachers and it came so easy for me that I won most of the competitions I entered. At times I would get lazy and not want to attend certain functions preferring to be alone outdoors. My parents' always won me over with the statement "your the only one". This was true throughout my life. Always the only Black face. Symphonies, even at Fire College.
Beside music and my ventures into the woods, my life was full of joy. Our family got together every Sunday for card games and a fabulous meal. Every Sunday and never a harsh word spoken.
12. Why did you decide to become a firefighter?
I had begun wiring houses and cottages with my father when I was 12. After an injury ended my musical career, I really didn't know anything else. I enrolled in night school taking electricity classes. With just one coarse to go to qualify for an apprenticeship, I was told that only two of us had past the previous year and they could not run a coarse for just the two of us. I had already paid and already being a volunteer firefighter I asked them to switch me over to the firefighting coarse which was the same cost. I past the first year and during my second year was hired in Thorold as the first Black professional firefighter in Niagara. Keep in mind that at the time there was a push for cities to hire more minorities. Really! they were scrambling around looking trying to be on record as having hired a minority person. Despite my qualifications, I must admit the fact that in this atmosphere, I was a "shoe in".
I must relate this incident to you. In 1953 a family friend returned from the Korean War having received intensive training in firefighting. When a ad was placed for firefighters in St. Catharines, he applied. He was laughed out of the office after being told "we don't hire Negros for our Fire Dept." Years later after sharing this story during an interview, my union threatended to kick me out unless I could prove this story. Union membership was a strict condition of employment on the fire dept. and they were looking to kick me out. I called our friend and on his death bed and he backed my story.
13. What was it like working in St Catherine’s as the only African American firefighter at that time?
I worked in Thorold. This like most fire departments there was a long history of predudice. Italians and Germans had been shunned for years. I can say with pride that I was welcomed with open arms. Hey, I went through jokes and pranks that every other man had had to go through, to see if I could take it. I gave as much as I took and formed many long term friendships.
Around 1981 I attended the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst. The courses were intense and lasted four weeks. Everyone had developed "Cabin Fever" by the final week so a tradition had grown where at the last supper banquet the students would present a show clearly made to horrify the staff and dignitaries present. Someone came up with the idea to tie me up before the final banquet and march me into the lunch hall preceded by other students with white sheets over their heads led by a burnt cross. They got their desired reactions. All jaws dropped at the head table.
14. Were you close with all your grandparents? Could you describe who you were closest to and why?
I was not close with my fathers' mother. She was old and miserable. After the family business went under my fathers' siblings had taken Grandma Bell to the States. After milking what money had been left they dropped her of at our place around 1963. How nasty was she? She washed my mouth out with soap for saying "darn it"!!!. I regret so much never have picked her brains for family history but she thought I was a spoiled brat, which I may have been. She died when I was 15. As I've mentioned, it was my mothers' side of the family that infused family history into me. Just wonderful times.
15. What is your fondest memory from childhood
I had a wonderful childhood. All the seeds for who I would become were nurtured as best as could be done during those times.