Former Toronto councillor Bev Salmon has been a priceless contributor to this city’s rich history. She was the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s (OHRC) first Black female commissioner and a co-founder of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
When the late Dr. Daniel Hill, the OHRC founding director and Wilson Brooks, the city’s first Black school principal and one of Canada’s first Black flying officers, were looking for a space to host a few friends to discuss the formation of a Black history movement, Salmon and her late husband Dr. Douglas Salmon – Canada’s first Black surgeon and the first African-Canadian president of a hospital medical staff – graciously offered their home.
That meeting 35 years ago led to the formation of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) which petitioned the City of Toronto a year later to have February proclaimed Black History Month. In December 1995, the Canadian parliament finally recognized February as Black History Month.
Since 1997, the OBHS has hosted an annual brunch and awards ceremony to kick off-Black History Month.
The keynote speaker at last Sunday’s event, Salmon said Torontonians can feel a sense pride that this was the first Canadian municipality to proclaim Black History Month.
“But that is not enough,” she said.
Salmon would like to see Black history become a basic part of the every school curriculum across the country.
“It’s important for all of us living in Canada to know our history that includes The Underground Railroad, slavery in Canada, Black Empire Loyalists and the many Black settlements down east, out west and in Ontario,” she told the audience. “We also have a rich military history of our Black soldiers from the time of the War of 1812, two Great Wars, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan to the present day.”
In the early 1990s, Salmon co-founded and co-chaired, with former school principal MacArthur Hunter, the Black Educators Working Group that, among other things, advocated for an inclusive curriculum.
“In school (in her time), there was nothing in the curriculum to make us proud of our background,” she said. “It was just negative stereotypes. We grimaced as we had to hear ‘Little Black Sambo’ in our early years and then ‘Huckleberry Finn’ in high school where the ‘N’ word was used over 200 times. That was considered great literature by some but definitely not by children of African heritage. Amidst great furor, the late Danny Braithwaite was successful in getting ‘Huckleberry Finn’ banned from the curriculum. These experiences helped shape my determination to strive for curriculum that would help build children’s self-esteem, knowledge and pride in their background.
“I dream of a day in our province when all of our rich Black History will be enshrined in a museum for all to see and celebrate…I also dream of the day when all our children, Black and White, will be taught about the contributions of Blacks as an integral part of the curriculum and that sharing the knowledge of our rich history will not be confined to the month of February.
“Blacks have been in Canada for four centuries and I dream of a day when we are no longer revealing ‘firsts’ as in first Black principal, nurse, surgeon, mayor, deputy chief of police, lieutenant governor, parliamentarian, governor general and the list goes on. We need to be celebrating reaching a level when our people are proportionately sharing power in government, in boardrooms and many other positions of leadership and responsibility. There is so much work yet to be done and I challenge individuals and the community to support, build and strengthen our great organizations like the OBHS to rise up and meet these needs.”
Salmon, a registered nurse who practiced in Toronto and Detroit, was presented with the Dr. Daniel Hill Award.
“This is special because I have had a close friendship with the Hill family for many years,” she said. “I and Dan’s wife, Donna, have lunch regularly.”
Other award recipients included Nathaniel Dett Chorale founder Brainerd Blyden-Taylor who was the recipient of the Olivier Le Jeune Award, the Black Business & Professional Association and Christ Church British Methodist Episcopal which were honoured with the Harriet Tubman and Rev. Addie Aylestock Awards respectively and Dr. Bryan Walls who received the Mathieu Da Costa Award.
“The recipients reflect the various aspects of purposeful activity related to the inspiration of our community,” said OBHS president Rosemary Sadlier who presented the organization’s inaugural Pin to outgoing Lieutenant Governor David Onley.
A dentist who undertook extensive research on his family history that led to a self-published novel, The Road that led to Somewhere, Walls dedicated the award to the family griot – Stella Butler who died in 1986 at age 102 – and his great grandparents John and Jane Walls who came to Canada from North Carolina via The Underground Railroad.
“I can be very proud of the fact that I stand on the shoulders of great men and women that have gone before, including my own family who came up here on The Underground Railroad by running through the woods at night and hiding by day,” said Walls who – with his family – established The Underground Railroad Museum and the John Freeman Walls Historic Site.
A first-generation descendant of slaves, John became a close friend of the slave owner’s son, Daniel, who became terminally ill in his 30s. He entrusted John with the care of his White wife, Jane, and their four children. John and Jane fell in love and fled North Carolina where inter-racial relationships were illegal.
With a bounty on John’s head, the couple and the children travelled incognito and Jane at times had to pretend that John was her slave. On one occasion, she tied him to a wagon wheel and whipped him to satisfy a Kentuckian slave patrollers’ curiosity.
“Aunt Stella told me stories of John and they helped to inspire me to make certain I try to leave a legacy for future generations,” said Walls who is the recipient of the Orders of Ontario and Canada for the promotion of Black history. “The stories are also relevant because there are modern-day enslavers like hatred, violence and poor self-esteem.”
Black History Month evolved from the work of American scholar Dr. Carter Woodson who, in an attempt to spread the concept of African-American history, suggested its celebration during a week in the middle of February.
That month was chosen because it’s the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and the chosen birth month of Frederick Douglass who was born a slave and therefore was unsure of his actual birth date.