Ryerson awards mark Black History Month

By RON FANFAIR

Just days after Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly offered an apology to former Africville residents and their descendants for the demolition of their community nearly five decades ago, bigots set a seven-foot cross on fire with a noose attached to it on the lawn of an inter-racial couple in rural Nova Scotia, about an hour’s drive from Halifax.

These events occurred during Black History Month in February that celebrates the accomplishments of Black people.

“The demolition of that community would have been swept under the carpet if the people of Africville, their descendants and the wider Black community and supporters in Canada had not fought against what was wrong, said historian Dr. Afua Cooper at a recent Black History Month celebration at Ryerson University. “The destruction of that community has had tremendous negative consequences that people are still reeling from, so that’s good that they have received an apology.

“On the other hand, the burning of that cross demonstrates that we still have a long way to go in the fight against racism and discrimination…People may say that a few bad eggs and rotten apples, perhaps or perhaps not, were responsible for this. These were young people and there is something going on in our psyche in the structure of racism that would allow people to feel with impunity that they can go onto someone else’s property and burn a cross and verbally abuse the Black male who shares the property with his White partner and their children.”

Cooper, a Jamaican-born historian and dub poet, was the keynote speaker at Ryerson’s second annual event to celebrate the late Viola Desmond who, in 1946, refused to sit in a New Glasgow theatre balcony section designated for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons.

After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket and fined $20 and costs.

When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, the Halifax beauty shop owner closed the business, moved to Montreal and enrolled in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died in 1965 at age 51.

The Viola Desmond Memorial award was presented to Jarvis Collegiate Institute Grade 11 student Lamarana Cooper-Diallo, Dr. Cooper’s eldest daughter.

The co-president of the Ujama Black Students Club and a member of the Young Diplomats Canada youth organization, 17-year-old Cooper-Diallo intends to pursue film production and photography and become a director and script writer. She also aspires to create visual art programs for young people to express their creativity.

Cooper-Diallo was the recipient of the 2006 Dudley Laws Leadership and Canadian Association of Black Educators awards and the winner of the Best Youth Photographer prize in the 2009 “Shoot for Justice” contest.

Ryerson also celebrated the extraordinary achievements of Black women with awards named after courageous African-Canadian trailblazers Emma Stark, Rev. Addie Aylestock and Marie-Joseph Angelique.

The daughter of former American slaves who moved to Saltspring Island, British Columbia to avoid California bounty hunters, Stark became the first Black teacher in Vancouver Island at age 17. She taught at Cranberry-Cedar School until 1890 when she passed away at age 33.

“We need to know our history,” said former Ryerson University School of Social Work director, Dr. Akua Benjamin, who was the recipient of the Emma Stark memorial award. “When a journalist confronted me a few minutes ago to reflect a little bit on Emma Stark, I had to starkly say I know very little about this woman. If this award event was not happening, I don’t think I would have gone and did a little bit of background research on who she was. This is an example of the erasures we are talking about.

“To have a function like this annually at an educational institution holds Ryerson responsible for making this happen. If you don’t have the money, talk to the president because you need funds to do this.”

Ryerson’s Business Collection Development & Liaison Librarian, Lucina Fraser, was presented with the award honouring Aylestock, who was appointed Canada’s first Black ordained religious minister in 1951.

A University of Toronto Masters graduate in Library Science, Fraser worked with the Ontario government and co-managed the Chissamba Chiyuka arts performing company prior to relocating to Montreal where she was employed as a translator with a nurses’ union.

Fraser came back to Toronto in the late 1990s to work with the Ontario Ministry of Labour before joining Ryerson in 1996. She has represented the university at international conferences in South Africa and Singapore and co-authored peer review articles.

The Trinidad-born librarian also volunteers with the Out of the Cold program and is a member of her church’s library and spiritual nurture committees.

Ryerson’s third-year Arts & Contemporary Studies program student Idil Omar was the recipient of the Marie-Joseph Angelique award that honoured the Portuguese-born slave accused of setting fire to her owner’s home and burning down much of what is referred to now as Old Montreal in April 1734. Convicted, she was hung by a fellow slave and her body was burned.

Omar is quite active on campus, helping to organize the 2009 orientation week, the Faculty of Arts Enrolment workshops, the student union’s multicultural show and week of welcome. She is also the student union’s director and Faculty of Arts director for 2010-11.

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