The saga of the Marcus Garvey Centre

The saga of the Marcus Garvey Centre

Toronto’s Black community, for all intents and purposes, has lost the Marcus Garvey Centre for Leadership and Enterprise; at least, access to it. The property, which was provided to the Black community by the old city of North York when Mel Lastman was the mayor, had fallen on hard times and the City of Toronto, which now includes the old city of North York, has moved to reclaim it.

This is the first part of a three-part article by retired educator, activists and former Caribana chair, Lennox Farrell, who was a key player in the acquisition of this property for the community.

How did the Marcus Garvey Centre for Leadership and Enterprise  (the “MGCLE”) come to be, as a property controlled by members of Toronto’s Black community? And why did it not achieve what it was meant to become, a place where all members of our community, especially North Yorkers, were to have a place, one of several locations within which to organize, teach, learn and prosper?

Also, what direct but unknowing role did community newspapers like Share have in its origins? What impact did the 1995 controversial musical, Show Boat, staged at the then-named North York Centre for the Performing Arts have on birthing it? Who were some of the individuals seminal in its origins, people like former North York and, later, Toronto mayor, Mel Lastman, his loyal assistant and political advisor, Sheila White, North York and, later, City of Toronto Commissioner, Joe Halstead, North York and, later, City of Toronto Councillor, Giorgio Mammoliti, pharmacist, Winston Clarke, public school trustee, Stephnie Payne, and a host of others have to do with it?

And what was my role in the enterprise?

It is said, when dealing with community issues, even non-controversial ones, that the shortest distance between the two points of beginning and ending is a very convoluted one. The origins of the MGCLE were baptized in controversy.

Regarding Show Boat, to those who still remember, this musical, like the earlier controversy between the Royal Ontario Museum’s 1989 staging of Into The Heart Of Africa, was another cultural watershed which had the community or, more precisely, some sections of it, quite riled up. Show Boat, as is well documented by author Norbese Philip in her book, Showing Grit, came from a long line of racist productions created and staged in the United States.

The role of informing, analyzing and defending community interests against the staging of Show Boat played by Share, its editor, Arnold Auguste and then columnist, Colin Rickards, cannot be overstated nor fully understood in one of three articles. Share was a needed and critical voice, providing effective and unapologetic advocacy for a Black community then already under siege by almost every public-sector institution and in just about every facet of life – employment, public housing, education and streaming, policing, the courts, imprisonment and shootings, etc and from private-sector institutions like the Toronto Sun that, on us, did not so much rise as squat.

Show Boat, from its history going back to the early 1920s, belonged to a genre of artistic productions which caught the attention of some producers about the financial possibilities in the U.S. of racist productions. In fact, the first blockbuster movie, Birth of a Nation, circa 1915, parented and nurtured America’s movie industry.

The film, based on the virulent, racist ideology of the Ku Klux Klan and on the denigrating of “Negro” Americans, underlined the sexual threat “Negroes” posed to the sacred virginity of White women in the U.S. The film, a classic example of art imitating life even into the mid-1950s, showed hooded Klansmen riding through the night terrorizing and lynching “Negroes” like Emmet Till, a 14-year old Black lad from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi who, because ‘he looked at a White woman the wrong way’ was that night abducted, beaten to a pulp and drowned.

Emmet Till’s murder and the national outrage and international outcry it created led directly to the creation of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.

Show Boat, like mushrooms from decaying matter, emerged from this tradition, a tradition of White actors performing in painted-on ‘blackface’, ostensibly imitating Blacks, or “Negroes” then, as being crude, dumb, shiftless, less than human and thus justifying the horrendous conditions under which they, descendants from enslavement, then Jim Crow terrorizing, were expected to exist.

Unfortunately, the reaction of “Black activists” in Toronto to Show Boat; “activists” who included the esteemed York University professor, Jeff Henry, internationally-acclaimed Canadian civil rights lawyer, Charlie Roach and trustee Payne brought accusations of anti-Semitism from organizations like the Canadian Jewish Congress (“CJC”). The basis of this accusation was because the writer, as well many of the individuals involved in the production and staging of Show Boat were Jewish. As in the Black community in which many saw nothing wrong with Show Boat, so, too, in the Jewish community many decried the accusations of anti-Semitism and supported our community.

It was not a Cumbayah time by any means, though.

Among those who vigorously opposed our vigorous opposition was Mel Lastman, then Mayor of North York. When he ran in 1994 for re-election, I, a resident of North York and opponent of Show Boat, could choose either not to vote, to vote for him, or run for mayor myself. It was the most expensive vote I’ve ever cast.

It was from within this maelstrom of elections and community activism that the MGCLE was born.

To be continued.

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