Six decades ago, the late Dr. Dan Hill III came to Canada, vowing never to return to the United States because of the racism he faced in the land of his birth.
He had applied to pursue graduate work at either the University of Toronto or the University of Mexico and when Canada called, he was ready to head north and start a new life in a new country.
At a symposium on Dr. Hill’s life and work last Saturday at York University, author Lawrence Hill said his father became disgruntled with the United States after serving as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army during World War II.
“He could not understand how he was good enough to die for his country, yet not good enough to live in integrated conditions,” said Hill whose award-winning novel, The Book of Negroes – first published in February 2007 – reached a rare milestone last week, selling more than 500,000 copies in Canada.
“In 1949, he left the U.S for the first time and goes to Norway and his experiences there were so liberating because he could date who he wanted and eat where he wanted. He was so uninhibited by the rules of segregation that he decided he would never live in America again.”
After completing his Masters at the U of T, Hill returned to the U.S. for a year to teach sociology at Morgan State College in Baltimore and get married before returning to Canada for good in the summer of 1953.
Dan Hill and his wife Donna, along with some friends, co-founded the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) in 1978. The Hills also authored significant books. Dan Hill’s Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada received rave reviews while his wife’s book, A Black Man’s Toronto: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey, 1914-1980 comprised interviews with the community activist considered the patriarch of Toronto’s Black community.
“My parents were deeply committed to the principles of academic freedom and academic generosity and they relied on the openness of others to write their books,” Lawrence Hill said. “Many people opened up their personal files, stories and archives to guide them with their publications.”
Eldest son Dan Hill IV, who dropped out of school at age 17 to become a singer/songwriter, remembered his father as a brilliant person who set very high standards for his children.
The late Dan Hill, who completed his doctorate in 1960 (his thesis was ‘Negroes in Toronto: A Sociological Study of a Minority Group’) was the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s first full-time director and commissioner, a provincial Ombudsman, a prominent writer and community activist.
He was appointed to the Orders of Ontario and Canada before his death in June 2003.
The symposium analyzed specific aspects of Hill’s life and work and their relevance today.