As an Olympian, Marjorie Turner-Bailey was a star in her own right.
However, nothing was going to prevent the Lockeport resident from being part of the television adaptation of The Book of Negroes.
The mini-series follows Aminatta Diallo, who is abducted as a child from her West African village, her enslavement in South Carolina and her subsequent freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering names in The Book of Negroes, which is a historical document containing the names of Blacks who were legally permitted to leave New York on British vessels after the American Revolution.
The British and the Americans compiled the book so that the American slave owners could be compensated for the loss of their slaves.
The six-part series, which also features Oscar winners Lou Gossett Jr. and Cuba Gooding, is based on the Lawrence Hill award-winning novel which captured the Commonwealth Writers’ and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prizes and the Ontario Library Association Evergreen Award.
A descendant of Black Loyalists, Turner-Bailey was an extra in the fifth episode set in Nova Scotia.
“To be able to be part of the production was quite an honour,” she told Share. “I grew up in an all-White town and when I went to school, I always felt that something was missing in a lot of the history and geography lessons that we were taught at the time. Nobody ever talked about this history and the families that came from New York and it never occurred to me to ask questions.”
Of the nearly 3,500 Blacks that left New York, 2,737 ended up in Nova Scotia in 1783 and founded settlements. They included Turner-Bailey’s ancestors, whose names are recorded in the book.
One of the first stops Hill made when he was researching The Book of Negroes was the Black Loyalist Heritage Society (BLHS) in Birchtown, where Turner-Bailey is a director on the volunteer board.
“We helped him a lot with the project and when we got to know him really well, we embraced him as if he was a family member,” she said. “When I read the book, it was just like if I was living that moment for my family. It had a very profound bearing on me and then when I watched the movie, it was like seeing my family come up from New York on the boats. The movie also helps people understand that our ancestors did not come here through the Underground Railroad. That was why I was so excited to get an opportunity to relive our history and be part of that movie.”
Turner-Bailey was not surprised that her application to be an extra was accepted.
“I pretty well knew I was going to be part of it because we don’t have a large population of Black people in Shelburne, Barrington, Liverpool, Lockeport, Yarmouth and the other municipalities around here,” she said. “They brought in some Blacks from Halifax and Dartmouth. It was just wonderful to be part of the production. The only thing was that it was so cold for May and we had to dress like the freed slaves. It made me get a sense of how cold those freed people must have felt on their way here. I however enjoyed the experience and would not have missed it for anything.”
The notable Nova Scotian is in the spotlight again as one of 10 Canadians celebrated by the federal government for her athletic feats.
Her image is on this year’s Black History Month poster paying tribute to national athletes – past and present.
“It’s nice to be remembered and honoured in this way,” said Turner-Bailey. “It was a privilege to represent Canada and it’s incumbent on young people to take advantage of the opportunities that will help them grow and expand their lives.”
The only Black family in Lockeport at the time, Turner-Bailey and her sisters were on the high school basketball team that won the provincial championship in 1964. She also played soccer before being turned on to track and field in Grade 11.
“Growing up in a small fishing town, there was nothing really to do other than go to school and play sport,” she said. “There was this physical education teacher (Eldon Forbes) who wanted to know which students were interested in participating in track and field. I didn’t know much about the sport then, but after he provided us with an explanation, about eight of us decided we would try the sport. At about the same time, I read an article about an American relay team doing well and I said I would like to do that.”
It didn’t take long for Turner-Bailey to show that she was a world-class competitor.
In just a few short months in 1964, she rose from a track and field neophyte to become one of the youngest Canadians to qualify for the Olympics.
In the Mount Allison Relays, Turner-Bailey single-handedly led her school team to the championship title, winning all the track and field events she entered. As Lockeport High School’s sole representative in the Acadia Relays, she was victorious in the track, javelin and discus events.
Voted Nova Scotia’s Athlete of the Year at age 16, Turner-Bailey qualified for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with a second-place finish in the 100-metre event (12-secs.) at the national Olympic trials in St. Lambert, Quebec.
Her dream of competing in the Olympics and meeting her idol, Bob Hayes (the American sprinter won gold medals in the 100-metre sprint and sprint relay events in Tokyo) was shattered by an injury. When another injury prevented her from going to the Mexico Olympics four years later, Turner-Bailey took a break from the sport and in 1971, moved to Jamaica with her newborn son to join her husband.
Her Caribbean stay was brief.
Moving with her son to British Columbia in 1972, Turner-Bailey resumed training while working at two jobs to support her family. While not qualifying for the Munich Olympics that year, she persevered and finally made her Olympic debut four years later in Montreal at age 28. Despite not winning a medal, she achieved her personal best in the 200-metres (23.06 secs.) in the semi-finals.
In 1978 after winning a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, she retired from the sport.
When asked what the highlight of her athletic career was, Turner-Bailey’s response was surprising.
“I would say when I quit,” she said. “I missed two Olympics and never said a word, but all the time I was hurting. I enjoyed everything I did in the sport and all the places I went, but I wanted to get back to an ordinary life.”
A member of the Nova Scotia and British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame and Dalhousie University’s Black & Gold Wall of Fame, Turner-Bailey returned to Lockeport 34 years ago and was a practical nurse at a nursing home before retiring in September 2012.
She now spends most her time volunteering at the BLHS and fulfilling speaking engagements.