Fires and Fortitude: Stories of Historical Kingston Entrepreneurs

Written by: Linnea Uunila

Kingston is well-known for its military and penitentiary histories, but there’s another important aspect of Kingston that is often overlooked: its businesses.

One man that left his mark on the city was William Johnson. William was a black entrepreneur who moved to Kingston from Ohio around 1826. Despite racism and discrimination, William Johnson became a very successful businessperson and respected community member. William’s passion was hairdressing, and he was able to make a good living out of it.1 He showed immense gratitude to others, putting ads in the newspaper to thank the community for its support of his business.2

Disaster struck in 1833, when a fire destroyed William’s barber shop. With perseverance, he did not let this setback keep him from pursuing his business, and he quickly opened another barber shop. In 1840, a gunpowder explosion on the wharf brought more misfortune to William, spreading destructive flames to his shop. Yet again, William opened yet another storefront. In the meantime of relocating to a new storefront, he continued his craft and offered hairdressing services from his home.2

William’s house narrowly avoided being burnt down in 1851, but in 1856, yet another fire ravaged his barber shop. It appears William was prepared this time, as he had previously purchased another shop and relocated there.  After this, lady fortune finally gave him a break, as he was able to live out his life without more fires.1 2

When William wasn’t busy working, he built a beautiful house in a prestigious neighbourhood where he lived with his family. He married Lavinia Stewart at St. George’s Church (now St. George’s Cathedral) and had two sons.1 2

William worked up until his death in 1881. William’s sheer determination in the face of adversity is inspiring. Community members liked and respected William, saying that he was honourable and a great businessperson. They noted William was also committed to church. His funeral took place at the Sydenham Street Methodist Church (now called the Sydenham Street United Church) and he was buried at the Cataraqui Cemetery.2

Sydenham Street United Church, where William’s funeral was held, later became an important place for Kingston’s Chinese community. The church welcomed Chinese immigrants and created a Chinese Department to support the community.3 4

One man who attended the church was Peter Lee. Peter owned and operated a famous restaurant on Princess Street called the Grand Café which opened in 1916. The restaurant operated for 44 years, serving decadent meals in a modern atmosphere. Customers often listened to the orchestra while they ate.4 5

Along with other Chinese-owned restaurants in Kingston during this time6, the Grand Café did not openly showcase the owner’s heritage. However, there were some Chinese-Canadian menu items.5 Many Chinese business people opened restaurants in attempts to avoid racism from employers, as they were able to work for themselves.4 The Sydenham Street United Church would have been a safe haven for Peter, a place where he was welcome and could connect with his community.

Another Chinese entrepreneur who contributed to Kingston’s economy was William Lee. William, with three business partners, opened the Roy-York Café in 1927. William ran the cafe for 20 years before disaster struck. Like William Johnson’s barbershops, William Lee’s restaurant was burnt down. Not only was the business ruined, but William Lee also got burnt by the flames. William did not give up, quickly rebuilding his restaurant. The restaurant then operated for another 18 years, hosting music and dancing along with modern cuisine. Like the Grand Café, the only hint to the owner’s heritage was a few Chinese-Canadian menu items.6

Roy-York Café
Credit: Roy-York Cafe [photograph], 193-, Commercial Buildings series, Kingston Picture Collection, V23 ComB-Roy York-2, Queen’s University Archives.

These three entrepreneurs are only a few examples of Kingston’s historic and influential businesspeople. William Johnson, Peter Lee, and William Lee demonstrate the sheer determination and will it takes to succeed in face of adversity. These men navigated racism and forged new opportunities from the rubble of their burnt-down stores. These entrepreneurs are the definition of fortitude and perseverance.









Queen’s University Archives. V23 Cem. Kingston Picture Collection. Cemeteries series.

Queen’s University Archives. V23 ComB. Kingston Picture Collection. Commercial Buildings series.

Queen’s University Archives. V23 ComB. Kingston Picture Collection. Commercial Buildings series.

Queen’s University Archives. V23 ComB. Kingston Picture Collection. Commercial Buildings series.

One response to “Fires and Fortitude: Stories of Historical Kingston Entrepreneurs”

  1. […] For many decades the Spire has been a safe space for all people within the Kingston community, notably, within Kingston’s Chinese community. During the 20th century, the church developed a Chinese department to welcome and support Chinese immigrants. The department (and congregation) helped to acclimate the new residents by providing them with English lessons, and other essential services. In the 1960s the church introduced a Chinese Sunday service along with Chinese-inspired activities that included traditional customs and the celebration of Chinese New Year. This department is an example of the importance of inclusion and community-building for the congregation at the Spire.Today, not only can Kingstonians and tourists alike visit this historic building to marvel at its beauty, but they can also support the church and the organizations that they foster by attending events or participating in the many programs they help to organize. With over 1,200 people in attendance every week, the church is not only a historical landmark but an essential part of the community.  […]

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