British Columbia·Photos

Strathcona students campaign to rename elementary school after sprinter Barbara Howard

Howard was a trailblazing Canadian runner whose career was cut short by the Second World War. She went on to teach at Lord Strathcona Elementary in East Vancouver.

Howard was a trailblazing Canadian runner whose career was cut short by WW II

Matt Bogdanovic-Milosevic, Chenesayi Kagande and Sojchana Swatton are campaigning to have their school renamed after Barbara Howard. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Her story of dedication and triumph might not be well known to many British Columbians, but the legacy of trailblazing sprinter Barbara Howard has caught the attention of a small group of Grade 7 students who have big plans to honour her name.

Chenesayi Kagande, Sojchana Swatton and Matt Bogdanovic-Milosevic are students at Lord Strathcona Elementary in East Vancouver.

The trio is campaigning to have their school renamed after the legendary Black athlete — who, after her running career ended in the 1930s, would go on to become a teacher there.

"Our school represents community, kindness and just caring about each other — and we feel that Barbara Howard is the best fit to do that for us," said Kagande, while out on a field trip with her classmates at Concord Community Park.

Barbara Howard with the stuffed toy Koala she received as a gift at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. Howard was featured on the front pages of Australian newspapers. (Submitted by B.C. Sports Hall of Fame)

The legacy of Barbara Howard

The Vancouver-born athlete grew up in the city's Grandview neighbourhood in the 1920s.

She was a student at Laura Secord Elementary and was known to sprint the block and a half to school when she heard the bell ring and still be at her desk on time.

She joined the track and field team at Britannia Secondary School. At 17, Howard was chosen for the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia, after running the 100-yard dash in 11.2 seconds, one-tenth of a second faster than the Games record.

The accomplishment made her the first Black female to compete for Canada. It also made her a sensation in Australia, where she was featured on the front pages of newspapers.

Barbara Howard, right, struggles during the 100 yard dash final at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. (Submitted by B.C. Sports Hall of Fame)

Just as her athletic career was blossoming, it was suddenly cut short. While she had hoped to compete in the Olympics, the next two games were lost to the Second World War.

With running in the rear view, Howard began work on another legacy, turning her formidable energies to education — both her own and others.

After graduating from UBC, she became the first visible minority teacher hired by the Vancouver School District, spending her 40-year career at schools on the city's East Side — including at Lord Strathcona Elementary.

Barbara Howard and the stuffed toy koala from the 1938 British Empire Games. (Submitted by the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame)

Changing the name

The students learned about her during Black History Month, taking comfort in knowing she walked through the same halls every day that they do.

"Howard was an inspiration and it feels so amazing to have someone who was so inspirational and wonderful like that to have gone and taught at my school," said Bogdanovic-Milosevic. "I just wonder what it would be like to be in a classroom with her because of everything she accomplished at such a young age."

Matt Bogdanovic-Milosevic wants to grow up to become an oncologist and author. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

The three of them have since been campaigning to have the name of the school changed in her honour, noting that the European-born Lord Strathcona — a co-founder of the Canadian Pacific Railway and at one time a principal shareholder of the Hudson's Bay Company — is a symbol of Canada's colonial past they say does not reflect the community the school has come to represent.

Sojchana Swatton wants to be an author and open up a bookstore. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Sojchana Swatton says many students are already on board.

"We've already made a petition with almost 100 signatures. We're going to present our project in classes," said Swatton.

The students will also make a presentation to the school's Parent Advisory Council on May 19 and are hoping for a meeting with the Vancouver School Board.

Chenesayi Kagande wants to be a lawyer when she grows up, because she says she likes to help people. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson from the VSB said it is open to renaming schools. It recently supported the renaming of both Begbie Elementary and David Lloyd George Elementary.

"The District is committed to following a clear, transparent, inquiry-based process where historical names can be reviewed and considered for possible change," wrote the district spokesperson.

In the first phase of the renaming process, the spokesperson said, a working group that includes district staff and representatives from the teachers' association gather information on the namesake of the school and thoughts from the school community. 

With momentum building, Kagande say they draw inspiration from Howard's accomplishments.

"As an athlete myself, she's encouraged me to work harder and just pursue my goals," she said.

With files from Karin Larsen

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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