Just three months before he died in June 1954, Rev. John Holland became the first Black to be recognized for humanitarian service with the “Citizen of the Year” award administered by Hamilton’s Advertising and Sales Club which folded in 1997.
Last January, teenager Jackson Virgin-Holland, a descendant of Holland, was honoured with a “Volunteer of the Year” award at the annual ceremony co-ordinated by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce since 1999.
The Westdale Secondary School graduate joined family and community members at Stewart Memorial Church last Sunday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Holland’s death.
“It’s really important that we remember where we came from,” said Virgin-Holland, who will pursue business studies at McMaster University in September. “I was accepted into the University of Toronto, but I chose to remain in Hamilton because there is so much history here and I want to be around it.”
The son of slaves who fled Maryland via the Underground Railroad in 1860, Holland was a railway porter for 33 years and the pastor at the historic Stewart Memorial Church that emerged from the first Black church in Hamilton founded by fugitive slaves and freemen 179 years ago.
Highly respected in his community for his kindness, compassion and advocacy, Holland persuaded Stelco and other local steel mills to hire Blacks and he approached the city’s mayor and the business community for funding for the church which represents the longest serving predominantly Black congregation in Hamilton.
The church was designated as an Ontario Heritage site two decades ago.
“It’s just a blessing for us to come together here today to celebrate one of our ancestors,” said Nicole Virgin, the mother of Jackson Virgin-Holland. “He led a purposeful and exemplary life and has left an indelible mark.”
Virgin’s mother – Nerene Virgin – did a visual presentation on her great uncle’s life at the special service.
“This day is particularly important for us as the immediate church and community family,” said Virgin, a former elementary and special education teacher who provided Canadian families with an alternative to American children educational programming with her role as Jodie on the award-winning TV Ontario show, Today’s Special. “While he passed away 60 years ago, his influence lives on through so many of us.”
The daughter of retired Citizenship Court judge and labour union activist Stanley Grizzle, Virgin was racially slurred by a Hamilton newspaper in the aftermath of her acclamation as the provincial Liberal Party candidate in Hamilton East-Stoney Creek in the 2007 Ontario elections. The paper later apologized for describing her as a “tar baby” and the case was settled to Virgin’s satisfaction in November 2012.
Order of Ontario recipient Wilma Morrison, who played a key role in rescuing the Nathaniel Dett chapel built in 1836, shared her memories of Holland who she met when she moved to Hamilton from London with her mother at age 10 and spent two decades in that city.
“Rev. Holland and his family were very welcoming and he was always in the community working in the best interest of residents,” said Morrison, who now lives in Niagara Falls and is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Brock University. “Because of his influence, the church choir here, of which I was a member back then, sang in all of the churches in this community and some synagogues.”
The memorial service featured several musical presentations, including a stunning rendition of Ave Maria by Grade Five student Khalida Mya Douglas, who turned 11 last Tuesday.
In the last 18 years, Holland’s legacy has been kept alive through the Rev. John Holland Awards presented to Hamiltonians and other Ontarians who have made significant contributions in the areas of art, business, community service and youth engagement.