By: Meera Eragoda, Arts & Culture Editor
Since the start of COVID-19 restrictions, I’ve been taking walks around Strathcona, and though the restrictions have eased now, I’ve been continuing that practice. Aside from being good for my mental health, being exposed to all the murals that are around there has helped expose me to the hidden history of this neighbourhood. One piece that stands out, even in its unobtrusiveness, is a mosaic on the corner of Campbell and Keefer which commemorates the Militant Mothers of Raymur.
Strathcona is Vancouver’s oldest residential neighbourhood, and though now mostly gentrified, used to be home to many immigrants and working class people — including a large Black population. According to Black Strathcona, “At its height in [the] 1940s, the black population in Strathcona was approximately eight hundred.” Though this number was quite significant, the city of Vancouver launched a united and unfortunately successful effort to displace these Black Vancouverites from Strathcona in order to build the Georgia Viaduct.
The Militant Mothers of Raymur mosaic commemorates one of the remaining, tangible aspects of the working class neighbourhood, the Militant Mothers of Raymur Overpass. In 1968, the City of Vancouver built Raymur Housing, a social housing project for low-income families. This housing was located on Keefer Street right next to the railway, and the children living there attended Admiral Seymour School only a couple of blocks away. The social housing still exists today, under the name Stamps Place and under the administration of a non-profit, New Chelsea Society.
Though the walk to school was short, it was dangerous. The children had to wait for any trains to pass before crossing or they had to risk scrambling across the train — which was slow but still moving — to get to the otherside. Many of the mothers living in Raymur Housing were single mothers who, fearing for their children’s safety, wrote many letters to government and railway officials.
The mothers petitioned and demanded change, but of course, given their working class roots, the officials completely disregarded their wishes and their children’s safety. In addition, since they were women in the 1970s, this docked additional points from their cause.
Eventually in 1971, 25 of the mothers decided to block the railway until a solution was found. Amongst them was Carolyn Jerome, a Black mother and one of the leaders of the fight. They blocked the railway once in January and in response, the railway officials promised not to run trains during peak school hours. This was a promise they broke quickly enough that the mothers were back protesting again in March — this time for three days and two nights, prepared with tents.
In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Jerome recalls the experience being frightening, “When the trains are rumbling on the track, you can really feel them in your body.” She also recounted how the railway conductors would hurl insults at them, calling them lazy and using welfare as an insult. The mothers persevered and CN Railway promptly served them with injunctions.
Their long-fought battle was finally won when the court sided with them and required CN Rail to build an overpass. This is now the green overpass which was named the Keefer Street Pedestrian Overpass. It was renamed in 2019 to commemorate the mothers, though the plaque on the overpass only credits Judith Stainsby by name, effectively contributing to the erasure of an aspect of Black history in an area that once had a substantial Black presence.
Hogan’s Alley Society is a non-profit whose goal is to “daylight the presence of Black history in Vancouver and throughout British Columbia.” They are definitely an organization worth checking out, and if you’re able to, donating to.