How this 99-year-old blazed a trail for Black teachers in Ontario
Millie Burgess says she’s spent much of her career telling strangers she has 20 kids and watching their jaws drop.
Burgess, 99, was not her mother. She was an elementary school teacher and considered the children she taught each year as her own, five days a week during school hours.
Born in Bermuda, Burgess was the first teacher of African descent to teach in the Ontario school system, and possibly the first black woman in Canada to graduate with a teaching degree, according to records from the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
“It was kind of scary at first, but I got over it,” said Burgess, who got her first teaching job in Toronto in 1957 after completing her education in Ontario and teaching in Bermuda.
“Toronto didn’t have that many black people,” Burgess said during an interview with CBC Toronto at her retirement home in Toronto’s Don Mills neighborhood.
CBC Toronto recently heard about Burgess’ story for the first time after receiving an email from one of her godchildren, saying the former teacher would be 100 this July and “some recognition would be nice for her.” The email included a link to a 2012 article in a Bermudian newspaper about an honor she received from the Ontario Black History Society.
Burgess recalls the culture shock when he first started teaching in downtown Toronto schools, which were filled with children who were often newcomers and didn’t speak English but were mostly from European countries.
She says it was sometimes difficult for her to pursue a career in a country where she initially had almost no contact with people from her background.
But she says it wasn’t the kids who made it difficult, it was some of their parents.
“It didn’t seem to bother the kids… They responded to me like I was a regular teacher. I didn’t have any issues with it, but some parents had … a lot of parents,” she said.
She recalls parents signing their children in, taking them to their class and asking when the teacher would arrive, unable to believe that she could be the one running the class. At least once, a parent told the principal he would not let a black teacher teach his child, she says.
Through all the challenges that came with being a pioneer in her profession, Burgess persevered and is now celebrated by fellow black educators for opening doors for others.
She was joined by other black teachers for some time in her career, including a handful of her siblings, who were also some of her first students. They were inspired to get into the profession after Burgess tutored them over the summer holidays years earlier.
Cheryl Ann Darrell, Burgess’ goddaughter and niece, recalls stories told by her mother, Cynthia Darrell, and her aunt, Millie, about the difference not being “the only one” made by having each other as Black classmates .
Burgess also inspired the next generation of family teachers, says Darrell, noting that she has many cousins and extended family who have walked the same path.
“Millie was kind of a leader to all of us,” she said.
“She was a perseverant…stubborn, but the good kind of stubbornness.”.
Rosemary Sadlier, a friend of Burgess and former president of the Ontario Black History Society, says Burgess has overcome racial doubts by consistently proving that she is an excellent teacher.
She tells a story about her friend and says she would invite parents who doubt her abilities as a black educator to watch her teach the class.
“Well, they came into her classroom. They watched her teach. And they encouraged her to stay as long as she wanted,” Sandlier said.
Many of their classrooms didn’t have black students, Sadlier says, but their position taught everyone… “If you just see us and learn from us, stay with us, you’ll see that we’re all really just them and I think that’s.” a part of Millie.”
She taught you whether you were her student or not, Sadlier says.
The underrepresentation of black educators is still a problem
Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, who is also black, says hearing about Burgess’ journey inspired her, but decades later some of the same challenges remain in the Ontario school system.
“When you’re the first to enter the profession, you always pave the way…because of this bold step she took, I’m sure she opened a lot of doors for others like me who have entered the teaching profession,” said Brown.
ETFO will soon launch a campaign profiling black educators in hopes that black students, some of whom have had some negative experiences in the school system, will see this as a career they would like to pursue, Brown said.
The federation is also urging school boards to address the retention and recruitment issue by urging the government to adopt a consistent anti-Black racism policy.
Celebrating an excellent black teacher isn’t just for show, Brown said, it has real implications for recruiting and retaining black educators, something the system still badly needs, Brown said.
“Right now black educators continue to be underrepresented, there is no critical mass,” she said.
“And for that to actually happen, we need to look at attitude, we need to look at retention, and we need to look at support across the system.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians – from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community – click here Being Black in Canadaa CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.