Windsor

Freida Parker Steele, 'a pillar of our black community,' dies at 90

Historian Irene Moore Davis described Steele as "being at the centre of a trailblazing family."

Steele described as 'being at the centre of a trailblazing family'

Freida Parker Steele speaks at the dedication of a statue of her father Alton C. Parker in 1997. (CBC Archives)

A pillar of Windsor's black community has died.

Freida Parker Steele, one of the city's first black nurses, died Sunday at Windsor Regional Hospital. She celebrated her 90th birthday a few weeks ago.

Daughter Cherie Steele-Sexton — one of Steele's six children — described her as "amazing, just amazing."

"What she did with her career, what she gave back to her community, her volunteerism, her just, solid face, truly a woman of God — she pretty much raised six children on her own," said Steele-Sexton. "I think that's pretty amazing."

Local historian Irene Moore Davis told CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive that Steele "was one of the first four women of African descent to become nurses in Windsor — and she went through quite a bit.

"But she always bore her situation with grace and dignity and really continued to push, throughout her life, for equal rights for everyone," said Moore Davis. 

Moore Davis called Steele "the centre of a trailblazing family."

Her father, Alton C. Parker, was the city's — and country's — first black police detective. Steele's husband, Eugene Steele, was Windsor's first black firefighter.

Freida Parker Steele speaking to CBC News at a 2005 reunion of her late father's beloved neighbourhood parties. (CBC Archives)

"When [Freida Parker Steele] joined the nursing profession, it certainly was not encouraged for young women of African descent," Moore Davis explained, noting that Steele graduated in 1950.

"But she became the president of her graduating class, she was an extraordinary student, and she had a long career as a nurse."

'Quiet, persistent, fierce'

Windsor writer Marty Gervais called Steele a "quiet, persistent, fierce woman," and "Windsor's answer to Rosa Parks."

The comparison to the American civil rights icon stems from a situation that occurred shortly after Steele's graduation, when a group of newly-minted nurses decided to visit a restaurant to celebrate.

"[The owner] saw Freida Parker Steele and said 'I can't have you in my restaurant, I can't have you here,' and she escorted her out the door," Gervais said. "She very quietly left — but what [the restaurant owner] didn't realize was that in and among the graduates was also the daughter of Mayor Art Reaume."

Moore Davis, the historian, also mentioned the incident to CBC.

"When [the mayor] heard what had happened ... he used the local media to try to appeal to that restaurant owner and others to open up their doors," she explained.

Steele speaking to CBC News in 2017 with pictures of her father. (Colin Côté-Paulette/CBC)

While the mayor's appeal wasn't entirely successful, Moore Davis explained that the experience led Steele to help found an organization called the Guardian Club, which eventually became the Windsor and District Black Coalition.

"For many of us who grew up around her, she was really instrumental in sharing the stories and making sure people knew about the struggles and what was done to overcome them," Moore Davis said.

In addition to her work as a medical professional, Steele was also the first woman to serve as a deacon — both for her home church of First Baptist, but also the Amherstburg Regular Baptist Missionary group, which included the black Baptist churches in Windsor, Sandwich, Puce, Dresden and Chatham.

"When an elder dies, it's like a library burning to the ground — and we know that one of our mightiest trees has fallen," said Moore Davis.

About the Author

Jonathan Pinto is the host of Up North, CBC Radio One's regional afternoon show for Northern Ontario and is based in Sudbury. He was formerly a reporter/editor and an associate producer at CBC Windsor. Email jonathan.pinto@cbc.ca.

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