Black History Month is celebrated in North America and in some other countries in February. It is believed that the precursor of Black History Month was “Negro History Week,” which was started in 1926 in the United States by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Mr. Woodson contended that, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” The choice of February is linked to the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).
It has been suggested that such an observation was first celebrated in Toronto by railroad porters within the black community by 1950, who had learned about it on their travels in the United States. In 1979, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), founded in 1978, petitioned the City of Toronto to have February proclaimed Black History Month. Interest grew in the community and the OBHS successfully lobbied the federal government to have February declared as Black History Month. Following a motion introduced by Grenadian-born the Hon. Jean Augustine, the first black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Parliament of Canada officially recognized February as Black History Month in December 1995.
It is believed that Mathieu Da Costa was the first black person to arrive in Canada in the early 1690s. He served as a translator for French and Dutch traders and explorers. Following Mr. Da Costa, many persons of African descent have made Canada their home. As in other parts of the world, black people were once enslaved in Canada. They, their descendants, and new African-Canadians have made and continue to make significant contributions to the development of Canada.
The list of African-Canadians who have made invaluable contributions to Canada is long! Harry Jerome, a three-time Olympian, won the bronze medal in the 100-metre race in 1964; there is now an awards ceremony named in his honour. Donovan Bailey became the world record-holder and the fastest man in the world at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Other black sports stars include hockey player, P.K. Subban, a significant donor to a Montreal hospital.
The list is also growing in the field of politics, in which women have played a leading role. Rosemary Brown, confronted with racism and sexism, was the first black female member of a provincial legislature and the first woman to run for leadership of a federal party. Immigrating from Jamaica, she became well known as a political commentator and activist, co-founding the Vancouver Status of Women Council. Barbadian-born Anne Clare Cools was the first black person to be appointed to the Senate of Canada. Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean broke many barriers, including her role as the first woman to be Secretary-General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophone. She was appointed Governor General of Canada by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005. The face of Viola Desmond, of Nova Scotian descent, both an activist for desegregation and a pioneering businesswoman, now graces Canada’s new $10 bill.
Lawyer Lincoln Alexander had many “firsts.” He was the first black member of Parliament, cabinet minister, and Lieutenant Governor for Ontario. Having served in the Royal Canadian Air Force before attending law school, he held his seat for four successive elections before resigning to serve as chair of the Ontario Workers’ Compensation Board. He served as chancellor of the University of Guelph for a 15-year term, exceeding that of any of his predecessors.
It is no secret that there are many African- Canadian members of the Anglican Church of Canada who have made, and continue to make, invaluable contributions to the life and witness of this Church. Our Church must not take their presence and desire to continue contributing to its life and witness for granted. We must continue to work towards increasing the participation, representation, empowerment and inclusion of black people in lay and ordained leadership roles in the full life of our Church.
The story of Canada has been enriched by a story of a people that is not often taught and or passed on in schools. Many young Canadians are growing up having never heard these tales of human endeavour and success. It is important that all of us take the time and initiative to learn more about our contribution to Canada, to share it with others, and to advocate for its inclusion in schools’ curricula across our nation. The story of African-Canadians is intricately woven into the quilt of the Canadian story.
There is an annual Diocesan Black History Month service held on the last Sunday of February at St. Paul, Bloor Street, and more parishes in our diocese are also holding similar celebrations. Let us honour and celebrate Black History Month with the same interest, enthusiasm and support as that given to other celebrations throughout the year.