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A look at Black history in Vancouver

Picture portraying vibrant colours such as royal blue, light blue, red, orange, yellow as well as various print-inspired desi

February is Black History Month in Canada. Black History Month is a time to reflect on and honour the inspiring legacy of Black Canadians and their communities.

British Columbia, and Vancouver specifically, is home to rich and unique Black history dating back to Canada’s colonial origins.

In 1858, nearly 800 free Black people left the oppressive racial conditions of San Francisco for a new life on Vancouver Island.

Soon after this time, in the early 1900s, the Black community from Vancouver Island moved to the Lower Mainland and settled in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood, also distinctly known as Hogan’s Alley. They were joined by Black homesteaders from Alberta, who originally came from Oklahoma, and by Black railroad porters who worked at the Great Northern Railway nearby.

While Park Lane was the official name of the area, Hogan’s Alley is what the community referred to it as. The alley ran between Union and Prior Streets from approximately Main Street to Jackson Avenue.

Though the people of Hogan’s Alley faced intense discrimination and adversity, these pioneers enriched the political, religious and economic life of the community.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, Hogan’s Alley became a thriving Black community and cultural hub for all.

However, in 1967, the government decided to expand the highway system through Vancouver, which resulted in the expropriation of the land and buildings in Hogan’s Alley to make way for the construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts. This resulted in the loss of homes and businesses in the western end of Hogan’s Alley.

In the process, the Black community was uprooted and displaced from this area. An identifiable Black neighbourhood has never re-emerged in Vancouver since.

Today, the Hogan’s Alley Society (HAS), a non-profit organization composed of civil rights activists, business professionals, community organizations, artists, writers and academics are committed to bringing light to the presence of Black history in Vancouver and throughout BC.

Currently, the Hogan’s Alley Society is working with the City of Vancouver to ensure that the redevelopment of the Hogan’s Alley block accurately represents the legacy of Strathcona’s Black community.

While a prominent Black neighbourhood has yet to re-emerge, the city’s rich history also birthed a number of remarkable Black Vancouverites who have made acclaimed differences for the community, including Joe Fortes, Rosemary Brown and Barbara Howard.

Joseph Seraphim Fortes, famously known as Joe Fortes, was a prominent Black figure in Vancouver’s early history and the city’s first official lifeguard.

Joe was recognized as “Vancouver Citizen of the Century” as he saved 29 lives from drowning, including adults and children, as well as taught three generations of Vancouver children to swim.

He arrived in Vancouver in September 1885, and English Bay became his favourite part of the city as he swam there often.

Joe passed away in 1922 and left a strong legacy.

In 1976, the Joe Fortes Branch of the Vancouver Public Library was dedicated to his name and in 1985, the Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House restaurant opened in his honour. In 2013, Canada Post released a postage stamp of Joe Fortes on February 1, celebrating Black History Month. The stamp’s release marked the 150th anniversary of Joe’s birth.

Rosemary Brown was a Black politician, feminist, writer, educator, lecturer and mother. Throughout her time, she contributed much to BC and Canada, including being the first Black woman elected to a Canadian Provincial Legislature and ran for leadership of the Federal NDP Party in 1975. She also held the position of Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

In 1956, Rosemary supported the founding of the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (BCAACP), which worked towards opening up housing and employment for Black people in BC and the introduction of human rights in the provincial parliament.

In her lifetime, Rosemary received several awards, including Woman of Distinction Award from YWCA, National Black Coalition Award, Harry Jerome Award and the Ontario Black Achievement Award.

Barbara Howard was the first Black female athlete to represent Canada in an international competition as well as the first person from a visible minority to be hired as a teacher by the Vancouver School Board. She was also a member of Hogan’s Alley.

Barbara’s teaching career spanned over 40 years, including 14 years as a physical education teacher before she retired in 1984.

She was inducted to the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and received the Remarkable Woman Award from the Vancouver Park Board.

These inspiring Vancouverites have contributed so much to history, helping make BC and Canada a much more culturally diverse and compassionate country.

To celebrate Black History Month, join the virtual celebration hosted by Canadian Heritage on Facebook Live on February 17, 2022, where there will be themed performances, tributes, interviews and much more.

For more learning resources, visit the BC Black History Awareness Society and Hogan’s Alley Society website.

Published on Feb. 11, 2022.