In 1951, Marelene Clyke became one of the first black N.S. women to join the reserves

Marelene Clyke says racial discrimination prevented blacks in Halifax from getting jobs in local stores. In 1951, she became one of the first African-Nova Scotians to enlist in the Canadian Women's Army Corps.

Now 83, Clyke recalls how hard it was for blacks in Halifax to find work

Marelene Clyke, of Halifax, was one of the first black Nova Scotia women to join the Canadian Women's Army Corps in 1951. (Steve Berry/CBC)

In 1951 at the age of 17, Marelene Clyke became one of the first black women from Nova Scotia to enlist as a reservist in the Canadian Women's Army Corps. She signed up out of necessity.

"I was in high school at that time and during the summers we … couldn't find employment in the stores, the only employment we could do would be housework," the 83-year-old Halifax woman said in an interview. "And then it came that we could join the reserves."

Clyke's story is one of a number that Halifax writer Juanita Peters highlights during African Heritage Month in Nova Scotia, part of her work looking at the achievements of black women in the military.

Segregation in the 1950s in Nova Scotia meant that blacks lucky enough to get a job inside a local business were often only allowed to work in a storage room "where someone couldn't see you," Clyke said.

"I can remember when Sobeys, I believe it was, was on Gottingen Street and there was one light-skinned girl working there. But she was really fair and you wouldn't know that she was black," she said.

"But anybody with a deeper colour in their skin, they certainly couldn't work on giving you cash and so on. Their excuse is that maybe the people wouldn't like it."

Clyke, second from right in the back row, at summer training at Camp Aldershot in early 1950s. (Steve Berry/CBC)

So Clyke joined the army reserves, along with other blacks and whites from her neighbourhood, as a way to earn money for school supplies and new clothes.

They spent their summers training at Camp Aldershot near Kentville in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. During the winters, Clyke worked as a clerical worker in the reserves three nights a week in Halifax and earned $65 a month.

She described her time in training as wonderful.

"We had not a problem," she said.

The only issue that emerged, she said, was that after a number of years she and others wanted to join the Air Force regular force, but were not allowed because of their colour.

Back then there was no human rights commission to challenge the racial discrimination.

"You sort of just accepted it," she said.

Clyke married her husband in 1957. She retired from service as a corporal in 1958. She later went on to work for the government for a number of years, while her husband served in the military for 31 years.

Clyke is now 83 and lives in Halifax. (Steve Berry/CBC)

Peters was scheduled to make a presentation Tuesday evening at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

Finding local documentation on black women in Nova Scotia who have served is difficult, and Peters wants to change that. She hopes to compile a booklet of profiles of some of the 23 women she's researched to distribute across the province.

"When we think of women in the military we still tend to think of women as caretakers, as nurses," Peters said. "And some of these women are in the battlefields. Some of these women are actually in armour and saving lives. The roles have really changed for all women since the 50s."

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley

Reporter

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts.