FREDERICTON, N.B. – The following statement was issued by Randy Dickinson, chair of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission, about Black History Month:
February was declared Black History Month in Canada in 1995. It is a welcome opportunity to draw attention to an important and little known part of our history.
It is a history that started at the beginning of New Brunswick's colonization. In the early 17th century, Mathieu da Costa, a Black interpreter, was an invaluable aide in the Samuel Champlain expedition that explored the Bay of Fundy and established New France. During the 1780s, about one-tenth of the Loyalists who founded New Brunswick were Black.
Those who were brought as slaves by Loyalists remained slaves here since slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1834. Other Black Loyalists were former slaves who had been freed by the British as a reward for fighting against the American Revolution; one-third of the free Black men had served in the British Army during the Revolutionary War. They had been promised land in New Brunswick, but the land grants they received either were never made or were smaller and less desirable than the ones given to other Loyalists.
Another regrettable and almost forgotten chapter of our history is that racial segregation was widespread for nearly two centuries in parts of New Brunswick. While Blacks settled mainly around Saint John, they were at first prohibited from living in the city itself unless they were menial labourers or servants. After 1870, they were allowed to live in the city, but were often segregated. There were separate bathrooms and seating in churches in Saint John.
As late as the early 1950s, Blacks in Saint John were prohibited from entering the city's main hotel, the Admiral Beatty, through the front door. Not even great stars such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were allowed to enter through the front. The policy was only changed after the late Lena O'Ree, a housekeeper at the hotel, insisted on entering through the front door. She was also involved in getting Blacks admitted to the Saint John YMCA. The commission granted her the New Brunswick Human Rights Award in 1998 in recognition of her work advancing equality for Blacks.
The discrimination was not limited to Saint John. Blacks were not allowed to vote in provincial elections until the 1840s and 1850s. The last separate schools for Blacks in New Brunswick closed in the early 20th century.
Black men and women have made important contributions to New Brunswick as trades people, employees, business leaders, educators and clergy. Blacks have been serving in Canada's military since the War of 1812, though at first they were allowed to participate only in segregated units. The No. 2 Construction Battalion was an all-Black unit that worked on rail and road construction in France during the First World War.
Blacks have also excelled in sports. One of the better known is Willie O'Ree, the son of Lena O'Ree, who became the first Black player in the National Hockey League. The City of Fredericton named a recreational complex after him in 2008. Ralph (Tiger) Thomas and Rob Brothers of Saint John have been leaders in the sport of boxing. Thomas received the New Brunswick Human Rights Award in September 2012 for his work promoting equality for the Black and visible minority communities. Numerous other Blacks have contributed left their mark in the sports world.
These are just a few highlights of the history of Blacks in New Brunswick, which is being publicized thanks to the work of groups such as the New Brunswick Black History Society, PRUDE and the University of New Brunswick.
Black History Month is about education, remembrance and social justice. I encourage New Brunswickers to find out more about this important part of our history, much of which can be found on the Black Loyalists in New Brunswick website.