What Black history month means in Vancouver

“While the number of individuals within Vancouver’s Black community may be small, there is great strength and resilience in the legacies of our parents.”

Hogan's Alley, image courtesy of the City of Vancouver archives

By: Youeal Abera, Staff writer 

As February rolls around each year, I always look forward to a month of acknowledging and celebrating the Black community’s achievements. Black History Month is a time to reflect on the sacrifices our ancestors made in the past so that we could define excellence today. It’s a time where we commemorate how far we’ve come as a community, and how far we still need to go.

Growing up Black in Vancouver is an interesting experience, especially when celebrating Black History Month. According to statistics conducted by the 2016 Canadian consensus, African-Canadians comprise 1.2% of the Vancouver area’s population. I’ve found that celebrating Black History Month in a city with such a small Black population can feel particularly isolating.

As a Black student at SFU, these feelings of cultural isolation are way worse. With a limited Black population on campus, it’s difficult to even ascertain where you can celebrate Black History or who you can celebrate it with.

One option to find a Black community on campus is the African Students Association (ASA). They’re a club that works to centralize the voices of African students and bring awareness to the social, political, economic, and historical issues that derive from the African continent. The ASA does their best to utilize events and resources to make students who have recently moved to Canada feel as close to home as possible.

Every two weeks, ASA facilitates nights of discussion where African students can engage in conversations regarding sexuality, mental health, and career expectations. This past February, ASA teamed up with the Global Student Centre to host a Black History Month event that celebrated African literature. However in spite of its resources and efforts, ASA faces a number of limitations. For example, as a fairly new group, ASA has stated that they often have minimal access to funding. Resultantly, they are forced to pay for large events themselves and, can be forced to wait long periods of time to be reimbursed by the SFSS.

SOCA (Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry) is another cultural resource centre available for SFU’s Black students. Giovanni HoSang, the current president of SOCA, works hard to acquire resources and services for SFU’s Black student population. However, SOCA has faced a number of ongoing frustrations on campus, specifically regarding issues of space. The resource centre for Black students has historically faced threats of displacement, most recently as part of the larger crisis on space in the new Student Union Building. This in turn communicates to SFU’s Black student body that their community is not prioritized by the SFSS.

These acts of displacement and erasure at SFU are eerily reminiscent of what’s transpired within Vancouver’s larger Black community. Hogan’s Alley was once the heart of the city’s thriving Black community. Located in the Strathcona area, Hogan’s Alley was once a place where Black Vancouverites could find refuge from housing discrimination in other parts of the city, dine at exciting restaurants like Vie’s Chicken and Steaks (where music icon Jimi Hendrix’ grandmother Nora Hendrix was a cook!) and enjoy the familiarity of people who share cultural backgrounds. Hogan’s Alley was truly a place where Vancouver’s African-Canadians could celebrate their Blackness away from the hostility of the city’s historical anti-black racism, which presented itself in many ways including an active branch of the KKK in the early twentieth century.

As years progressed, the city of Vancouver made a number of attempts to rezone the Strathcona area. Additionally, newspapers in Vancouver began depicting Hogan’s Alley as a place where deviant activity was rampant. As a result of the community’s  rezoning  and negative depictions,  house owners in Hogan’s Alley struggled to enhance their homes or procure mortgages.

Towards the end of the 1960’s, the city started to build a freeway that cut directly through Hogan’s Alley. Even though the construction of the freeway eventually ceased, its production ended up creating the Georgia viaduct. In the process of the freeway’s construction, Hogan’s Alley was annexed and, consequently, many houses in the community were decimated.

This act of gentrification was detrimental for the community. As Vancouver decided to build new infrastructure in Hogan’s Alley, and as the city began to tear down homes, members of the Black community became instantly displaced. These community members lost their homes, integral common resources, and even the identities they made in Vancouver. The displacement and erasure of Hogan’s Alley communicated to Vancouver’s African Canadians that their community’s well-being and unity was not a priority for the city. As a result of this, Vancouver no longer has a thriving community where its Black citizens could immerse themselves.

Although these instances of Black erasure are fairly discouraging, it’s important for Vancouver’s Black citizens and SFU’s Black students to acknowledge and appreciate that there’s still an ample amount of Black history to celebrate! Just this month, SFU’s library provided access to a number of books and movies that celebrate Canadian Black history.

On February 28th, SFU’s Global Student Centre (GSC) offered students with a separate event that celebrated Black History Month. The GSC  provided guests with games, music, and snacks from the African continent.

Another exciting moment this past February was when SFU lecturer Chantal Gibson released a book that centralizes Black Canadian women. How She Read, a collection of poetry written by Gibson, also works to destructure the colonizing effects of the English language. As a result of her publication, Gibson was included in CBC’s lists of “20 works of Canadian poetry to watch in 2019” and “6 Black Canadian writers to watch in 2019.”

The history of Vancouver also carries a number of inspirational Black figures who made significant and admirable accomplishments.

Emery Barnes, a professional football player and member of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team of 1952, emigrated to Canada in 1957. He was elected into the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia in 1972, and in 1994 he became the first speaker in the province elected via secret ballot.

In 1972, feminist and community leader Rosemary Brown was elected into British Columbia’s provincial legislature, becoming the first African-Canadian woman to ever be a part of a parliamentary body in Canada. Bonus: she also taught women’s studies at SFU and was an officer of the Order of Canada.

Harry Jerome, legendary track and field athlete, also once called Vancouver home. From 1960 to 1967, Jerome was titled “the fastest man on the planet” five separate times. Today, you can find Jerome’s statue along the seawall in Stanley Park.

So yes, living in Vancouver can be a challenging experience for Black individuals. Every year, as Black History Month arrives, it can be frustrating to realize that the availability of Black spaces and resources in this city is restricted. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that Vancouver has a rich and comprehensive history of individuals who defined Black excellence.

While the number of individuals within Vancouver’s Black community may be small, there is great strength and resilience in the legacies of our parents. By looking at what our community leaders accomplished in the city, we can always be reminded of the profound power that stems from our existence in Vancouver.