Olive Ozoemena meets Constance Timberlake
Olive Ozoemena is playng the role of Constance A. Timberlake in the production We Were Here.
The Saint John Theatre Company's production We Were Here, created and directed by Clyde A. Wray, shines a light on legendary Black community members. Eight local actors are taking on the roles of historical figures from Saint John and beyond. Their names may be lesser-known, but their stories have shaped the city.
Olive Ozoemena took on the role of educator and activist Constance A. Timberlake, who was born in Saint John and moved to the United States for school. Ozoemena is originally from Nigeria, and has been living in Saint John since 2015. She has an undergrad in theatre arts, and volunteers with the Saint John Theatre Company.
Here's her reflection on becoming Constance A. Timberlake (1930-2019).
Before my conversation with playwright Clyde Wray, I had not heard or read anything about these legends. After searching out more information, I was dumbfounded that these icons who surmounted such obstacles and pain, accomplishing great things in their lives, are relatively unknown. Their names are not on walls or plaques, nor are they celebrated in our communities as they should be.
My character's name is Dr. Constance Timberlake.
She was born in Saint John in 1930, and in her younger years worked for T.S. Simms, a paint brush manufacturer on Simms Corner. She ended up moving to the United States to become a teacher.
She focused her attention on civil rights and education. At times that led to threats on Dr. Timberlake's life and that of her family. She was once arrested for protesting at an amusement park that banned Black people. There were indignities from her male colleagues, for being both Black and a woman, yet she still excelled.
She fought for the integration of Black children into the educational system during the fight against segregated schools in the 1960s.
Instead of waiting for external forces to bring about change for Black schoolchildren, Dr. Timberlake and others initiated that change in Syracuse, N.Y., through acts of activism. They represented and made a difference in the Black community.
She earned a PhD and became a faculty member and commissioner of education at Syracuse University. She later advised two U.S. presidential administrations.
Dr. Constance Timberlake died in 2019. She was an activist, a force to reckon with, fearless, courageous and a resilient agent for change. I am not sure our generation, myself included, would be able to endure or suffer through what she had to. Yet she rose every day with a mission to change the course of Black children's lives.
I was captivated by Constance's life and learning about her caused me to reflect on my own. I left my home country for the United States a few years ago in pursuit of education, just as she did. Her life was dedicated to community service and making an impact that brought change in her community. That is the trajectory of my life right now. My hope, through acts of service, is to contribute as much as I can and influence policy in a way that can make our community better.
I would implore our community to seek out Black and Indigenous ancestors, born on this land where today we also live and sweat, struggle and overcome.
Let's devote time and resources to telling their stories, and most important, celebrating their achievements. Let us etch them into our minds and hearts, lest we forget! Make it a point this month to learn about one Black legend that lived on this land!
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.