Black History Month evolved from the work of Carter G. Woodson, an African American, in the 1920s. He established Negro History Week, then Black History Week as a time of celebration to follow the year’s study of Black history. The week he chose contained the birthdates of two people significant to the ability of people of African descent to be free to obtain an education. The week includes February 12th for President Lincoln, who brought emancipation into the law in the United States, and February 14th for Frederick Douglas, who advocated for Blacks to do what they could within their own country to lead to a better life for all Black people.
In the 1950s, the Canadian Negro Women’s Association brought the celebration to Toronto, Ontario. CANEWA stalwarts such as Penelope Hodge, Phyllis Brooks, Millicent Burgess and Aileen Williams arranged for former porter Stanley G. Grizzle, to host the first event at the newly situated British Methodist Episcopal Church on Shaw Street. By 1978, the fledgling Ontario Black History Society (founded by Dr. Daniel G. Hill, Wilson O. Brooks, Donna Hill, Joan Kazmarski and others) whose mandate included the promotion of Black history education, successfully petitioned the City of Toronto to have the now monthly celebration formally recognized. Toronto was the first location in Canada where Black History Month was formally recognized.
Soon after I became the president of the OBHS, a staffing change at the OBHS brought about a threat to the celebration since the request to the City of Toronto for our official, annual proclamation almost did not occur. Luckily, it was caught in time! Realizing how precarious this celebration could be for the organization and the community, I sought the assistance of Daniel O’Brien our representative with the Province. He was able to facilitate a Black History Month (BHM) proclamation for Ontario on our behalf. I then obtained provincial proclamations from all provinces. I further approached Jean Augustine then MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore and Parliamentary Secretary, and sought her assistance in having a national proclamation for BHM. She advised me that while there are no national proclamations issued by the Federal Government, she would pursue a national declaration for Black History Month.
By December 1995, Augustine was excited to let me know that I should watch CPAC so that I could witness her offering the final reading in the House. Augustine further invited me to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill for the first celebration of February as Black History Month across Canada celebrate in February 1996. I organized a bus trip on behalf of the OBHS and many teachers such as Terry Jones, students, community members such as photographer Winston LaRose, joined the trek to witness and join in the new national celebration! I was honoured to be the only community member invited on stage with the ‘Black Caucus’ and Prime Minister Jean Chretien to offer remarks at this historic event since I had initiated the declaration and since I had successfully built the interest in having a BHM celebration through having presentations in schools, researching and hosting exhibits, and conducting bus tours to historic sites related to the Black community. Now, and for the future, there would be not only local, but regional and national recognition of February 1996 as Black History Month!
One member on the platform who was not part of the Black Caucus, was MP Sheila Copps. To further the celebration of a national Black History Month, she announced the creation of a new initiative, to go into effect for the following year, called the Mathieu DaCosta Awards. This national art and essay contest was open to youth in elementary and high school and was seen as a way to both educate and involve them in the national declaration of Black History Month. I was selected to be on the final selection committee and the process was under the direction of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Teachers Federation. Among those who also served on this committee were chair Damian Solomon of the CTF, Mairuth Sarsfield noted writer and publicist for Expo 67; Henry Bishop of the Black Cultural Centre (Halifax), June Girvan – Ottawa historian and advocate, Beverly Mascoll – beauty business entrepreneur, and, filmmaker Michael Jarvis. While this national contest was later phased out following a reduction in resources for the programme, it contributed to the awareness of the long term presence of Canadians of African origin.
But why still have a Black History Month? It is now 20 years since the national declaration was made…African Canadians need to feel affirmed, to be aware of the contributions made by other people of African Heritage globally, to have role models, and to understand the social forces which have shaped and influenced their community and their identities so that they can feel connected to the educational experience and their life experience in the various regions of Canada and around the world. They need to feel empowered. It is imperative to have a balanced sense of the historical contributions of people of African descent within this country. African Canadians need to know a history of Canada that includes all of the founding/pioneer experiences in order to work from an actual reality, rather than a virtual reality.
As a group, which has roots dating back to at least 1603 (with the arrival of Mathieu Da Costa who was the interpreter for Samuel de Champlain) and which has helped to defend, clear, build, and farm this country, the presence of people of African descent is well-established, but not well-known. It is not well-known because history has tended to record the acts of rich and powerful, usually‘Caucasian’ and frequently ‘men’ to the exclusion of any other group. The celebration of Black History is an attempt to have the achievements of people of African descent in Canada and around the world included. This we need to do for us, for our children, for all children as a part of the UN International Decade for People of African Descent and as something that proactively addresses social justice and human rights.
By Rosemary Sadlier, O.Ont.
Author and Past President, Ontario Black History Society