Manitoba

Fighters, scientists, protectors: Meet 5 notable black Manitobans you may never have heard of

The contributions of black people have been entwined into the being of Manitoba from the province's formation, but few of those figures were elevated to mainstream consciousness.

Wade 'Kojo' Williams, June James, Monica Stothers among those who served as role models for black community

Keith Sandiford, a former University of Manitoba professor, has studied the contributions of black Canadians. ((Ian Froese/CBC))

Keith Sandiford remembers being the only black person on the bus in Winnipeg — and among the faculty at the University of Manitoba.

Black people were scarce in Winnipeg when the Barbadian took a chance on the city, coming here in the 1960s as a history professor.

He tells the story of his friend, a new teacher, puzzling one household in a small hamlet in western Manitoba in the late 1960s.

One of the children "went home at lunch to tell the parents there was a chocolate [teacher] on staff," said Sandiford, an accomplished author who has written many books on black history and cricket. 

"The parents could not believe what the kid was saying, so they went to the school."

That friend, John Albert Jack, would go on to teach for 35 years and become a recipient of the Order of Manitoba.

As for those curious parents? 

"John and that family became firm friends, and I think they still are," Sandiford said.

Unwritten and unnoticed

The contributions of black people have been entwined into the being of Manitoba from the province's formation, but few of those figures were elevated to mainstream consciousness the way Louis Riel or Duff Roblin were. While remarkable, the lives of many black Manitobans were shrouded in relative obscurity.

Sandiford has tried to change that, in part, by tracking the names and accomplishments of many Caribbeans residing in Manitoba at the turn of the millennium.

A decade earlier, high school students from St. John's High School shone a light on some of those stories. Originally pitched as a pamphlet, their history project became a 123-page book, The Black Experience in Manitoba: A Collection of Memories. It documents the lives of 40 black people who helped shape the province. 

Their books remain one of the few authoritative texts on the contributions of black Manitobans.

In recognition of Black History Month, here's a look at a few of those celebrated figures.

Slavery to stage: George Brooks

Born a slave in Kentucky, George Brooks's life feels like it was ripped from a movie script.

His was a story of reinvention, which included slavery, singing and fighting in three wars over the span of more than 50 years.

George Brooks, left, was visited by boxer Joe Louis at Deer Lodge hospital in 1945. The Winnipeg Tribune photo caption noted that Brooks spoke about the wars he'd fought in since he was born into slavery in Kentucky. (Winnipeg Tribune/Archives & Special Collections, University of Manitoba Libraries)

"Catapulted from the lowly life of a slave on a southern plantation to the dizzy heights of an international celebrity by reason of his remarkable soprano voice that gave him an audience before royalty, he was plummeted to the depths when his voice 'cracked' on a high note and he came back to the level of a construction camp cook," wrote the Winnipeg Free Press.

"He fought in the Civil War, the Spanish-American war and enlisted in the Great War at the age of 73. In between, he sailed the seven seas for diversion." 

He died in 1948 at the age of 103 at Deer Lodge Hospital.

A fight for the right to work: Lee Williams

Lee Williams fought for the right to hold jobs he was previously barred from at a railway company.

Williams was among many black men in the 1930s and 1940s who worked as sleeping-car porters, catering to rail passengers. It was the only work on the rail line afforded to black people, who were seen as racially inferior.

Lee Williams, seen in this 2000 file photo, fought for equal employment rights for sleeping-car porters. (CBC)

Williams fought CN Rail and his union for fair treatment and better wages. His activism would force an end to the discriminatory practice by 1964.

He became one of the first black sleeping-car conductors and eventually a supervisor, the Globe and Mail reported. 

Doctor and community leader: June James

Black youths looking for a role model need look no further than June James.

That was the praise of Wade "Kojo" Williams, the late president of the National Black Coalition of Canada, who marvelled at the life of James, an accomplished doctor in the study of allergies who remains a celebrated community member to this day. 

June James, seen in this 2000 file photo, became one of Canada's leading allergy specialists. (CBC)

An expert in immunology, James also served as president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba (2003-2004) and the Manitoba Allergy Society, as well as chairperson of the Allergy and Immunology Section of the Manitoba Medical Association.

She was made a member of the Order of Manitoba in 2004.

She has been a vigorous supporter of community projects, from volunteering with numerous boards to helping build an affordable-housing complex in Winnipeg.

Fighting discrimination: Wade 'Kojo' Williams

Wade "Kojo" Williams is remembered as an outspoken voice against injustice. 

Born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the human rights activist immigrated to Winnipeg in 1975, where he organized Black History Month celebrations in Winnipeg and defended members of the African and Caribbean community from discrimination.

Wade 'Kojo' Williams, in this 2006 file photo, was previously responsible for the Black History Month celebrations in Winnipeg. (CBC)

For three decades, "he used to scare the daylight out of politicians," Sandiford said.

Williams, who died in 2012, founded various organizations in the city, including the Manitoba Coalition of Organizations Against Apartheid and Racism, and Students Against Apartheid.

He worked as a teacher, police officer and later a youth worker. 

A 1st for Winnipeg's police force: Monica Stothers

Monica Stothers made history when she became the first black woman to join what was then called the Winnipeg Police Department.

As a member of the police academy — from which she graduated in 1988 — Stothers put pressure on herself because she knew that receiving a police badge would open the door for other black women to achieve the same feat, she told the writers of The Black Experience in Manitoba.

Monica Stothers became the first black female police officer in Winnipeg in 1988. (CBC)

Stothers told CBC News years later it was important for the force to have diversity on the ground.

"It sends a huge message to the black community that at the police department, we do care," she said in a 2006 interview. "The black community does count." 

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is covering the Manitoba provincial election for CBC Manitoba. He previously has reported on provincial politics and breaking news in Winnipeg, Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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