Black History Month – Carrie Best

Canada Post honours Carrie Best

Canada Post honours Carrie Best

Rosa Parks. Coretta Scott King. Myrlie Evers. It’s odd how many Canadians can name the American women of the Civil Rights struggle, but would be hard pressed to name any of the Canadian women who fought for racial equality here. Perhaps this is because many Canadians believe that Canada has always been equal, open and accepting of all races. The unfortunate truth is that Canada had its own Civil Rights movement. However, this chapter of our history is often missing from the lessons taught in our schools.

One name that we should all know is Dr. Carrie M. Best. Who is Carrie Best? She was Canada’s first Rosa Parks. She was a journalist, an activist, a pioneer, and a humanitarian of the highest order. Carrie Best used her one small voice and turned it into a booming cry that could not be ignored.

Carrie Prevoe was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1903. In 1925, she married Albert T. Best and changed her name to the one that under which she would rise to prominence. Her first brush with notoriety came in 1942 when she and her son Cal were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace for sitting in the whites only seats of The Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow (they were ultimately convicted and fined). Mrs. Best attempted to fight this injustice by undertaking anti-racist litigation against her home town. However, nothing came of it, and most of history seems to have forgotten about this episode.

From that point on, Mrs. Best became a vocal advocate for racial equality and social justice. In 1946, she founded The Clarion, the first black-owned, black-published newspaper in Nova Scotia. She used the newspaper to publicize the case of Viola Desmond, another black woman arrested and fined for sitting in the whites-only seats at Roseland. When Desmond appealed the ruling, Carrie Best travelled to Halifax to be in the courtroom to hear the case. Viola Desmond lost her first appeal, but continued to fight, and Mrs. Best continued to follow the case both in person and in The Clarion. Desmond won her second appeal, helping to put an end the Jim Crow laws in Nova Scotia.

The Clarion continued to be published until 1956, when it changed its name to The Negro Citizen and began national circulation. During that period, Mrs. Best also began broadcasting a radio show called The Quiet Corner. That show remained on the air for 12 years and was broadcast on as many as five stations across the Maritimes. In 1968, Carrie Best was hired as a Human Rights columnist for the Pictou Advocate. For seven years, she used that platform to fight for better conditions on Native Reserves, to end discrimination against black property owners, and to end racism in Canadian legal and political institutions.

In 1975, Carrie M. Best’s contribution to our country is formally recognized when she is made a Member of the Order of Canada (in 1979, she is made an Officer of the Order). Over the course of her life, she was also awarded a number of honorary doctorates, as well as a Queen Elizabeth Medal.

Carrie Best died in her home town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on July 24, 2001. In 2002, she was posthumously awarded the Order of Nova Scotia.

Read more about Carrie M. Best here and here.

Black History Month – Phil Edwards

Canada Sports Hall of Fame

Photo Credit: Canada Sports Hall of Fame

This year, Black History Month also coincides with Olympic fever, and there has been no shortage of controversy surrounding these games. However, Sochi 2014 pales in comparison with Berlin 1936, and McGill sent one of its best and brightest to lead the Canadian Summer Olympic team to the “Nazi Olympics”. It was a particularly bold move considering that Philip Aaron Edwards was black. We all remember Jesse Owens, but we should never forget our own Phil Edwards.

Phil Edwards was born into an affluent family in British Guyana on September 23, 1907. Throughout his early years in the Caribbean, Edwards was a promising runner, and his father was his first running coach. Upon graduating from secondary school in 1926, he moved to the US to further his running career and his studies at New York University. During his time at NYU, Phil Edwards managed to set a number of intercollegiate records in middle-distance events.

Although Edwards was an extremely talented athlete, he was not eligible to compete on the US track team at the 1928 Olympic games. However, Canada was more than happy to welcome him. He was invited to join the Canadian team, so he packed up and moved to Montreal, where he enrolled in McGill medical school. That year, Phil Edwards brought home a bronze medal from the Olympic games in Amsterdam.

Edwards quickly became the star of the McGill track team and served as Redmen captain for five seasons, from 1931 to 1936. During his time on the team, the McGill track and field team won six consecutive championships. In 1932, he returned to the Olympic games, this time in Los Angeles. He returned to Montreal to a hero’s welcome, having won three more bronze medals.

1936 was a big year for Phil Edwards; not only did he graduate from McGill’s medical school, but he also set out for his third Olympic games, the infamous “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin. This time, he would lead the Canadian Olympic team as its captain. Edwards never came home from an Olympic games empty-handed, and this time was no exception. He returned with yet another bronze medal, earning himself the nickname “Man of Bronze”. This fifth medal made him Canada’s most decorated Olympian at the time. On the return journey from the games, a hotel in London refused to honour his reservation because of his race. The entire team cancelled their reservations. They would not stay in any hotel that would not accept their captain.

Phil Edwards returned to McGill to complete a graduate diploma in medicine, specializing in tropical diseases. He received the diploma in 1945 and remained in Montreal on the staff of the Royal Victoria Hospital. Dr. Edwards also used is expertise in to participate in many international missions.

In addition to his studies, his running, and his medical career, Dr. Edwards also participated in the war effort. He interrupted his career to serve in the Canadian army during WWII and rose to the rank of captain.

Philip Aaron Edwards died in Montreal on September 6, 1971, just days shy of his 64th birthday.

Read more about Phil Edwards here and here.

Black History Month – Rosemary Wedderburn Brown

Canada Post honours Rosemary Brown

Canada Post honours Rosemary Brown

Many Canadian politicians have passed through McGill’s gates. Our University can be proud of its contribution to public life in Canada. During Black History Month, one politician in particular stands out, not only for her contribution as a politician, but for strength in the face of the racism and sexism she faced as Canada’s first black woman to hold public office.

Rosemary Wedderburn was born in Kingston, Jamaica on June 17, 1930. Her family had always been politically minded, and her interest in social welfare was clearly demonstrated when she emigrated to Canada in 1951 to pursue her post-secondary studies in social work at McGill University and UBC. Canada in the 1950s was a challenging place for a young black woman, and Ms. Brown was met with both racism and sexism at every turn, whether looking for housing, employment or simply trying to fit into university life.

After graduating from UBC, Rosemary Brown joined two social groups that would help to lead her toward her career in politics: the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and Voice of Women. During the activism of the 1960s, she became a political advocate against racism and sexism. Given her unique qualifications to speak on behalf of both women and minorities, Ms. Brown took on the role of Ombudswoman and founding member of the Vancouver Status of Women Coucil (VSW).

In 1972, with the support of the VSW members, Rosemary Wedderburn Brown entered BC provincial politics as an NDP candidate and was elected on August 30th of that same year.  She retained her seat as MLA for 14 years.  During her time in office, she worked on many social issues including removing sexism from educational material and forming the commission on the family.

In 1973, the United Nations awarded her the United Nations’ Human Rights Fellowship.

In 1975, Rosemary Brown ran for leadership of the federal NDP. Her slogan was “Brown is Beautiful”. Her candidacy broke the colour barrier in the federal political arena when she ran a close second to Ed Broadbent.

Ms. Brown retired from the BC provincial legislature in 1988, but remained active in social advocacy for many more years. In 1993, she was named chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and in 1996, she was awarded the Order of Canada.

Rosemary Wedderburn Brown died in Vancouver, BC on April 26, 2003.

The McGill Faculty of Medicine Research and Graduate Studies Office offers a prize named in honour of Rosemary Wedderburn Brown.  Read about the Faculty Prize here.

Read more about this extraordinary woman here and here.

Black History Month – George Wellington Smith

Photo credit: Collections Canada

Photo credit: Collections Canada

Many Montrealers think of our fair city as a place of openness, tolerance, and inclusion.  However, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when people of colour suffered the consequences of discrimination in ways that we hope to never witness again.  On a cold January morning in 1902, an unfortunate Montreal family learned first hand just how evil racism truly is.

George Wellington Smith worked as a stableman for the Laurin family. By all accounts, he was an industrious and well-known horse trainer of sober character.  On the morning of January 26th, 1902, Mr. Smith was to prepare a horse for Mr. Cyrille Laurin who would be attending 9:00 mass at nearby Gesù church, followed by a visit with Henry Hogan, owner of the upscale St. Lawrence Hall Hotel.

Mr. Smith had the horse harnessed and ready, but for some unknown reason, Eddie Laurin, the 21-year-old son of Mr. Cyrille Laurin, entered the stable and took it upon himself to chastise the stableman for not preparing the horse earlier.  The younger Mr. Laurin had made a habit of verbally assaulting the black employee. On this day, the assault was particularly nasty, culminating in Laurin calling Mr. Smith an “ill-bred ni**er” and ordering him to apologize on his knees. Laurin left the stable shortly thereafter, but soon returned brandishing a revolver.

The rest is, unfortunately, predictable. Eddie Laurin again ordered George Wellington Smith to get down on his knees and apologize. He repeatedly threatened the stableman, and eventually a struggle ensued. In all of the chaos, Laurin fired two shots, one of which struck the unfortunate Mr. Smith in the side. Mr. Smith was rushed to Hotel Dieu Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries at 02:00 on January 27th, 1902, leaving behind his wife and young son.

Fortunately, justice was relatively swift in this case. The criminal trial of Edward Laurin for the murder of George Wellington Smith took place in Montreal in March of 1902, and on April 5th of that same year he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.

Cyrille Laurin was at a loss to explain why his son did what he did. Perhaps his time in South Africa during the Boer War had corrupted him. Perhaps it was something else entirely. At that time, all over North America and throughout the world, racism and intolerance against many different ethnic groups were commonplace. Perhaps he had learned to hate right here in Montreal.

Read more about George Wellington Smith’s story here or here.

Black History Month – Anderson Ruffin Abbott

Anderson Ruffin Abbott

There are many forgotten heroes of black history in Canada. How many of us were taught about Anderson Ruffin Abbott in our Canadian History classes? I certainly wasn’t. Who is Dr. Abbott? He was the first Canadian-born black doctor.

Dr. Abbott was born into an affluent family in Toronto in 1837. His family had fled the harsh treatment of blacks in the United States of the early 1830s for the much more welcoming conditions in Canada. The Abbotts quickly rose to prominence, and this allowed Anderson Abbott to receive an excellent education.

In 1857, Anderson Ruffin Abbott graduated from the Toronto School of Medicine and continued his studies under Dr. Alexander Thomas Augusta. In 1861, he received a licence to practice from the Medical Board of Upper Canada, thus becoming the first Canadian-born black doctor.

His career tells the story of the times.  He joined the fight against slavery in the US by becoming a civilian surgeon under contract to the Union Army.  During his time in the United States, he became well-known in Washington and was counted among the select group that stood vigil over President Lincoln as he lay dying.

In 1866, he returned to Canada, and in 1871, he was admitted to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.  In 1874, he was appointed coroner for Kent County.  He returned to the US in 1894 when he was appointed as surgeon-in-chief at Provident Hospital in Chicago.  In 1896, the hospital made him medical superintendent.  However, in 1897, he resigned his position and returned to Canada once again.

Dr. Abbott became increasingly dedicated to promoting the idea that the access of blacks to higher education should not be compromised.  He wrote a series of articles and editorials for a number of publications on the subjects of black history, the Civil War, and medicine. His life served as a shining example of what people of colour could accomplish when given the opportunity to achieve.

Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott died in 1913 at the age of 76.

For more on Dr. Anderson, click here.

Sigh… Still such a long way to go…

CHOI 91.9 Radio X

Last week, on francophone radio station CHOI 91.9 Radio X Montréal, a particularly enlightened announcer had some very well-researched and inspiring things to say about black role models.  His informed conclusion was that, for the most part, black heroes turn out to be zeros.

You can listen to his brilliant commentary here.

Of course, it is difficult to think of anyone from Canada’s black community who has made a significant contribution without some terrible scandal ruining everything.  Off the top of my head, the only people I can think of are:

  • Donovan Bailey (first Canadian to win Olympic gold in the 100m sprint)
  • Jully Black (singer)
  • Gregory Charles (musician)
  • Austin Clarke (novelist)
  • Malcolm Gladwell (journalist)
  • Marci Ien (news anchor)
  • Jarome Iginla (hockey player – NHL all-star and Olympic gold medalist)
  • Michaëlle Jean (Governor General of Canada)
  • Dany Laferrière (novelist)
  • Ranee Lee (singer)
  • Oscar Peterson (pianist)
  • Gloria Reuben (actress / AIDS activist)
  • P. K. Subban (hockey player)
  • Bruny Surin (Olympic gold medalist)

’nuff said.

Happy Black History Month!

Photo Credit: Marie-France Coallier, The Gazette

When did slavery end in Canada? Wait. What? We had slaves in Canada? Yup.

Welcome to Black History Month. This is the month when we remember some amazing things that we should never have forgotten, and some less-than-wonderful things that we would probably prefer to forget. Fortunately, the McGill community includes people like Dr. Charmaine Nelson who can help to jog our memories.

Visible and ethnic minorities have made and continue to make countless contributions worth celebrating to McGill, to Montreal, to Québec, and to the world. However, while we are remembering those who have triumphed, let us not forget those who were lost in the struggle.

A glimpse into Canada’s slave-owning past

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