Johnson, Oliver “Ollie”
Updated: Feb 17
Athletics has often been a way for young men and women to rise above their economic status. It has also been a means to Ollie Johnson used his speed and baseball abilities to gain the support of the white community in Oakville, ON at a time when racism was still a major issue in Canada.
Oliver Parker “Ollie” Johnson was born on 7 December 1892 in Oakville, ON. He was the youngest child of Branson Johnson and Amanda (née Shipley), former slaves who had been freed in 1855 and had come to Oakville in 1863. He had five older sisters and five older brothers.
As a youth Johnson was already an outstanding athlete. He played senior baseball while in high school. In 1916 he moved to Buffalo, New York to find a higher level of competition by playing for the Cuban Giants of the Negro League. He returned to Canada in 1917 and registered under the Military Service Act in October. Ollie Johnson was drafted on 16 January 1918. He arrived in England on 19 April and was posted to the 8th Reserve Battalion.
Someone must have recognized Private Johnson's sports skills as he participated in many sporting events. He was the Canadian Expeditionary Force's champion sprinter and played on the championship baseball team. At the June-July 1919 Inter-Allied Games in Paris he was a member of the 800 meter relay team. He was the anchor on the team that won the silver medal. He also participated in the grenade throw.
On 4 August 1919, Private Johnson arrived in Montreal. He was discharged on 7 August 1919 in Toronto. As with many veterans, work was hard to find, especially so if you were Black. Johnson turned back to sports. In July 1920, at the age of 27, Johnson went to Montreal for the Olympic trials. Robert Kerr, who won a gold medal for Canada at the 1908 games thought Johnson stood a very good chance at a medal. Johnson placed second in the first heat but the question of his amateur status arose. He had been paid for baseball. He therefore did not make the team. Despite the setback at the Olympic trials, Johnson still had speed. In 1921 he won the gold medal at the inaugural competition of the Coliseum at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition.
In 1919 Johnson was playing baseball again. By 1922 Johnson was playing short stop for the Oakville Oaks baseball team. He was lead-off hitter because of his speed and base-stealing abilities. He also was able to pull off some great plays, such as unassisted double plays. He also acted in the baseball club's minstrel shows, which had most members of the club participate in black-face. After playing for several years with the Oakville Oaks, he moved on to the Hamilton International Harvesters on the City League.
Johnson would find employment operating his own dry cleaner establishment. It was supposed to have been bought for him by supporters wanting him to return and play baseball for Oakville. In the evenings and weekend, sports was still his passion. What made Johnson unique was that he was the sole Black player on the teams with which he played. His reputation made him well known among the white community in Halton County. Perhaps because of the fame the Ku Klux Klan in Halton County did not bother him. After the Second World War he served as president of the local Royal Canadian Legion branch.
Johnson was always active in promoting sports in the Halton County area. He had served as president of the Halton County Baseball Association in 1946 and served on the executive of the Ontario Baseball Association for many years. He was made life member of the OBA in 1961 and inducted into the Halton Sports Hall of Fame in 1968. Johnson retired in the 1950s and died in 1977. Ollie Johnson was posthumously inducted into the Oakville Sports Hall of Fame and the Canadian Black Ice Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame.