By Valerie Jacober, Behaviour Support Worker, Carson Graham Senior Secondary School
Almost 25 years ago, I was hired by the North Vancouver School District after being a parent volunteer at Ridgeway Elementary for two years.
I was so pleased, as this job allowed me to take my elementary school children to and from the neighbourhood school and have meaningful work that gave me the same days off as my children.
Another bonus was that some of the teachers began to see me as a resource for African heritage culture and history. I hadn't thought of myself in those terms but I'm thankful for those intuitive teachers who opened this door for me. And, what a large door it was!
Top: Jim Burnett, educator, at Ridgeway Elementary, Feb. 1999
Bottom: Valerie Jacober welcoming Valerie Jerome, teacher, back to Ridgeway, Feb. 1999
My interest in Canadian Black History started almost immediately after I moved to Canada. I've only lived in North Vancouver and I discovered that there weren't many people with African heritage living here, and there still aren't many even now that I've been here for 39 years. The best source was going to be the library, or so I thought.
The first neighbourhood library that I visited only had three biographies on African Americans, all males: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier. I checked out all of them. Upon returning the books, the person at the desk asked me if I only read books about Black people! I told him that would be difficult to do since they only had three such books in their library.
As a new immigrant in 1978, I really wanted to learn about the history of Black Canadians but I wasn't rewarded until I ventured into the downtown library on Burrard and Robson. There were a number of new releases at the door entrance and the first one I saw was, "Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia" by Crawford Kilian.
Top: Author Crawford Kilian donating his book, "Go Do Some Great Thing", to Ridgeway library, Feb. 2000.
Bottom: Group that asked for City of North Vancouver to recognize Harry Jerome, July, 2001. North Vancouver Recreation Centre was renamed Harry Jerome Recreation Centre.
Front: Valerie Jacober, Valerie Jerome, Paul Winn and NVSD teacher Cheryl Fary. Back: Stuart Parker.
Years later, I met Crawford and discovered that he is a white American expat who is a teacher and writer who had contributed to Canadian social studies text books that include information on several Black pioneers! Crawford told me that he wrote his book because he was interested in the topic and no one had written about it yet.
Research about the history of the Underground Railroad started when I was the Education Assistant in Mr. Andrew Wiet's grade 5 class. He asked me to talk to his students during the time when they were reading aloud, "Underground to Canada", by Barbara Smucker.
Although I was born and raised in the United States, I didn't know much about the Underground Railroad because Black History wasn't taught much in American schools.
However, I was surprised upon starting grade 11 in 1974, to discover that the English department was offering the first ever Black Studies class in my Colorado high school. Even as a member of this ground breaking class, I didn't learn much about the Underground Railroad except for the romanticized story about runaway slaves finding "freedom" in Canada.
SO, I went to the North Vancouver City Library and found myself in front of the Resource Librarian. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he thought that I was requesting information about a literal railway system!
Over time, I became acquainted with a handful of African heritage people in the Vancouver Mainland whenever we'd come across each other on the sidewalks, on the bus, in the malls, at the Lonsdale Quay ballroom or through a friend of a friend.
I first met North Vancouver City Councilman John Braithwaite at Safeway, long before I knew about his political position in the city. Over time, he became a valuable source of information about the history of African heritage people living in North Vancouver.
However, for the most part, I realized that very little was known about the history of African heritage people in Canada and this piqued my interest all the more. The opportunity of speaking to children at Ridgeway gave me even more motivation to learn more and share as much as I could.
Out of my research on the Underground Railroad, my interest grew to include and focus on the history of African heritage people in British Columbia and specifically, in North Vancouver, where I live.
When I was an Education Aide at Ridgeway, Chuck Heath, Teaching Librarian, invited me to go with him to interview Valerie Jerome, the sister of Harry Jerome and an Olympian in her own right.
Through that encounter, Ms. Jerome shared many family stories and photos and with her permission, we made copies that were used for display and as a resource for other teachers at the school.
Upon my request, Valerie Jerome eventually agreed to return to Ridgeway Elementary School, a place that was, initially, a negative for her because she and her siblings were met with stones being thrown at them on their first day of school in 1957. Mr. John Palmer and his students welcomed Valerie on African drums in 1996 upon her entrance into the library.
Afterwards, she happily thanked them for their warm and friendly greeting, then told them about her experiences at Ridgeway. Valerie returned to Ridgeway many times afterwards, up until Mr. Palmer's retirement, for Black History Month, in order to speak to the students in his grade 7 classes.
Mr. Sean Henry, my daughter's grade 7 class at Queensbury, also welcomed Valerie Jerome to his class.
Paul Winn, Social Worker, social activist and best friend of Harry Jerome, donated several copies of "Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia" by Crawford Kilian, for me to give to school libraries. Queensbury, Sutherland Senior Secondary and Ridgeway received copies.
Other community members who graced the halls of Ridgeway were, North Vancouver City Councilman, John Braithwaite. His son Mark, a West Vancouver police officer, and Donovan Tait, BC's first African heritage RCMP officer, spoke in new teacher, Vince White's classroom.
Top: Constable Mark Braithwaite and RCMP officer Donovan Tait visit Ridgeway 1999
Bottom: Val Jacober and Ridgeway Black History Month Display, 1999
Entertainer and actor of The Polka Dot Door, Denis Simpson, and Jim Barnett, former US Olympic Track and Field member who was present at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City when two of his teammates held up black gloved fists during their award ceremony, were also guests in Mr. Palmer's class. Mrs. Chris Gilbert, a retired St, Paul's Hospital nurse, visited Nancy Monro's Class and kept the grade 2 students spell bound by her stories about growing up in Trinidad in the 30's.
In addition to these guest speakers, I arranged field trips, created posters, bulletin boards, display tables and a Black History Month scavenger hunt over my 13 years at Ridgeway Elementary.
Last February, I was interviewed on Co-Op Radio to speak about "my" Black History program in North Vancouver School District. Also, author, Mr. Kilian visited Carson Graham. He donated a copy of the newest edition of "Go Do Some Great Thing" to the library.
To my surprise, Mr. Kilian also presented 2 copies to me. I gave one to Lucas Mann, a French teacher at Carson Graham because his 3 times great-grandparents, Charles and Nancy Alexander, are featured on the cover of the book's first edition!
When I became a Behaviour Support Worker in 2005, it was a job that was itinerate by nature and it was difficult for me to continue with the Black History Month classroom and school-wide initiatives. Six years later, I began working at Carson Graham Senior Secondary.
Into my second year, Mrs. Nancy Clark invited me to speak to her English classes while they were reading, "To Kill A Mockingbird" after I told her that I was born during the time of segregation in the Southern US and that both of my grandmothers were domestic workers.
Visiting classes, across subjects to share my family's stories and photos spread by word of mouth and it has become an annual event that I look forward to.
I'd like to thank the following teachers who invited me to speak in their classes this year: Jamie Ireland, Iren Heer, Elliot Lo, Kevin Yang, Justin Bolivar, and Jemma Benko.
Shout outs to students Adrian, Madi, Fiona and teachers Christopher Blay, Peter Bond, Owen Howell, Grahame Jarvis and Susan Johnston who read some of the Black History Month announcements. Next year, the theme for Carson's Black History Month will be the Black LGBQT community.
So, how long is Black History Month? Every day in February and for as long as schools continue to recognize and celebrate the multitude of accomplishments made by African people around the world. Black History. Learn about it!
Carson Graham Senior Secondary
Behaviour Support Worker