Nova Scotia

'How am I related to The Rock?' Nova Scotia boy's question sparks museum exhibit

Growing up in Amherst, N.S., Jaxon Cooke loved learning about his family's remarkable journey from slavery to celebrity. But he had one question: how exactly was he related to Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson?

Amherst museum tells one family's remarkable journey 'from slavery to celebrity'

Jaxon Cooke had always heard about his family's amazing history, and his curiosity inspired a new exhibit at the Cumberland County Museum. This panel answers his question about how Hollywood superstar The Rock fits into his family. (Darlene Strong)

Jaxon Cooke has grown up in Amherst, N.S., steeped in his family's history. Relatives describe him as an "old soul" who loves spending time at the ancestral home, called Maria's Place.

Jaxon learned to draw, paint, and play piano in the house, which was bought by the granddaughter of an enslaved African who bought his own freedom. He had sleepovers, take-out treats, built forts out of bamboo trees and loved scaring his friends with the "creepy" antique dolls in the 150-year-old home.

He was in the front parlour of the home when he was told his father Donnie had passed away. 

As he turned 13 recently, he had one question for his elders: "How am I related to Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson?"

"I wanted to know about The Rock because knowing he was related to me was great, but making the nine-generation connection with facts and photos was amazing," Jaxon told CBC News. 

"I wanted to know about the connection as The Rock has set the bar high as the highest-paid sports actor in the world, and in WWE he is known as the People's Champion."

His aunt, Darlene Strong, set out to address his question, and the answer became an exhibit at the Cumberland County Museum that tells their family's extraordinary journey from slavery to celebrity. 

"If you were at Maria's house in 1875, this is what you hear, quite likely," Strong says as she sits down at a vintage, Amherst-built piano that is part of the museum's collection.

She tickles the keys, finding the right note, then plays an inspired version of Let My Life on this Earth Speak for Me. No sheet music, no printed lyrics.

Darlene Strong plays the piano while another member of her family stands by. (CBC)

Stolen from Africa

She's surrounded by her family's history. Generations before Jaxon asked his question, his great ancestor, Dembo Sickles, was born in Benin, West Africa. He was the son of a chief, and bound for great things. 

"Well, it started in 1762, if we want to go back for a quick history lesson. The son of an African chief was in a log when the slave-traders came," Strong says.

"He was pulled out of the log and taken into captivity, brought to the United States and from there he was brought to P.E.I. in 1785 with Captain Creed." 

Research found American immigration papers in New England showing Sickles was sold to Captain William Creed of Prince Edward Island in 1785. 

Maria's Place has been part of Darlene Strong's family for nine generations. Her ancestor, Maria Sickles, purchased the house in 1875 for $161 cash. (Jon Tattrie/CBC)

The slave-traders "brought over people that were skilled, very knowledgeable, healthy and had good business sense," Strong says. 

Sickles became "more like a house guest than a slave," she says. He lived in the main house and worked in the merchant business.

"But he had to work seven more years, because he fell in love with a lady named Polly," she adds. 

He bought their freedom and petitioned for land in Montague, P.E.I. He developed the land, grew orchards and ran a cattle business. He and Polly had eight children. 

Sickles died in P.E.I. in 1803 and was buried in a prominent grave. His granddaughter, Maria Sickles, moved to Amherst, possibly for business reasons, and married a young widower. 

"And what I found interesting was they purchased a house in 1875, here in Cumberland County, for $161 cash. And some of the Blacks weren't even allowed to go to school and she's out buying property!" Strong marvels. 

Strong's paintings capture ordinary moments in her family's history. (CBC)

That house, in the Amherst-area community of Brookdale, took on many names as a meeting place, a place of refuge, and the family anchor in Nova Scotia for nine generations and counting. It's located a few kilometres from the museum.

"All down from his generation, they were used to nice things, and they were used to proper etiquette, and this is one of the things that Maria instilled in our family," Strong says.

"I remember my dad telling me he used to sit on her knee and she'd read the Bible to him and show him the right way. That carried on for eight generations."

Strong looks at the deed Maria Sickles signed to buy the house and notes her exquisite penmanship, all the more impressive at a time when many Black Nova Scotians weren't taught to read. 

A member of the family holds the original deeds for Maria's Place, including her signature. (CBC)

"Because of her platform in life, pointing people in the right direction, we're here today," Strong says. 

Much of the beauty in the exhibition comes from Strong, who painted a series of images from Maria's daily life. 

"The first painting for 2020 was Maria walking into Brookdale with no street lights, all alone. She had a basket full of food — maybe from ET Hunter's store — and that spoke to me, because I said, 'That took courage.'" 

Strong is an accomplished artist and created this painting of Maria Sickles walking from downtown Amherst to her home in Brookdale. (CBC)

Strong's grandfather created a windmill on the barn that caught a shortwave radio signal.

"So that meant boxing matches, news from abroad, war-time information," she says.

"Some nights they'd have prayer meetings. They tell me the lunches were just over the top."

She spent much of her childhood visiting the home. Her father often cut wood for the elders, or helped them in other ways. 

"To be taught good manners meant a lot. When we went into a house, you didn't run through people's homes," she says, recalling cake and buttermilk.

 "And you sat there and behaved yourself while the dad or the mom helped the elders. Good memories."

Ringside seats for Rocky Johnson

Rocky Johnson wrestled in Amherst before moving away and later helped launch the career of his son, Dwayne Johnson. (CBC)

Some of her favourite memories come from exciting outings to watch her father's cousin, Wayde Douglas Bowles, wrestle under the name of Rocky Johnson in the 1960s. 

"When we used to go to the stadium, which is just up the street here, and they'd have the wrestling and Rocky was on the docket with Sweet Daddy Siki; well, you couldn't get a seat. We'd be just shouting and we'd be so excited. We had Mr. Treadwell down at ringside ringing the bell and Archie Gold telling us to be quiet and chasing us into the bleachers. So we've had good memories!" she laughs. 

Rocky Johnson moved to Toronto and became a legendary professional wrestler with the WWF, now WWE. His son from his second marriage took an interest in wrestling, so Johnson showed him the ropes. Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson started his journey to becoming an iconic wrestler and actor. That story is part of the exhibit — and the answer to Jaxon's question: his great-grandmother Edith and The Rock's grandmother Lilian were sisters.

Cumberland County Museum curator John Wales says it's an important exhibit. The museum celebrates the four Fathers of Confederation that came from Amherst, and the town's long history of manufacturing. When he recently took the curator position, he wanted to create a strong show for Black History Month.

John Wales, centre, and his team at the museum worked with Strong to create the Maria's Place exhibit, which will be shown until the end of February. (Courtesy Cumberland County Museum and Archives)

"Amherst had one of the largest Black communities in Nova Scotia and time fades history sometimes and people forget," Wales says.

"We need to remember that the contribution of all Afro-Nova Scotians has been very significant and has frankly been downplayed — sometimes deliberately, and sometimes through neglect. And we need to change that and celebrate that."

Wales encouraged any Black families in the area to consider donating artifacts to the museum to enhance its collection documenting African Nova Scotian history. Items that come with a backstory are even better, he says. 

Strong says the exhibit is in part to honour Rocky Johnson, who died in 2020. Both he and his son are descendants of Dembo and Maria Sickles. She says The Rock hasn't visited yet, but Jaxon would love the chance to share his love of family history with his distant cousin if he's ever in the area.

"I think the exhibit will be very helpful for everyone to better understand our African Heritage Month history," Jaxon says.

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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