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16 Hamiltonians honoured in campaign for Black History Month

They were entrepreneurs, educators, coaches, community leaders and activists.

Denise Brooks, who died in 2020, was a social service leader and “relentless advocate” for the people she ministered to. Bluesman Jackie Washington was Canada’s first black disc jockey before he died in 2009. Lifelong Hamiltonian Julia Washington Berry, a mother of 10 who died in 1950, ran a tollbooth at the top of James Street.

Sixteen black Hamiltonians are being honored for their contributions with displays across the city through February for Black History Month. Their faces and names will be on banners along James Street North between Barton Street and Strachan, and their biographies will be on display at recreation centers, museums and libraries across the city. For several months, 12 HSR buses will be decorated with signs promoting the We Are Hamilton – Black History Remembered initiative.

These influential Hamiltonians are gone, but their legacy lives on through their influence, communities and families.

“I want to cry,” said Kelly Foster, whose grandfather, Rev. Robert Foster, can be found hanging from a lamppost on James’ east side near LiUNA station. “He really deserves it.”

American-born Foster was a businessman, athletic trainer, and pastor. He was the first chaplain at Woodbine and Fort Erie racecourses and pastor of Stewart Memorial Church, one of the earliest black communities in Hamilton. According to the city’s website, he was also a co-founder and first president of the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association (ACCA), the city’s longest black-supported organization.

Kelly said he’s “very involved” both in the community and at home. When her father – Bob’s son – died in 1972, her grandfather became the center of her life.

“He became very helpful to me and my brother,” she said. “He was the rock of our family.”

Anthony Foster has often heard that his great-grandparents were “heroes in the community.”

Anthony – or “Big A” as his great-grandfather called him – said he was thrilled to see Bob, a “positive person” who always wore a smile, being remembered for his work.

“It makes me proud to be a Foster,” he said in a message.

The initiative, developed by the Hamilton Black History Council in collaboration with black-led organizations and the City of Hamilton, will be officially unveiled at City Hall on Monday. Several members of the foster family plan to attend the event.

Banners have been hung from streetlights along James Street North north of Barton to commemorate the contributions of members of Hamilton's black community to Black History Month, which begins on February 1.
Banners have been hung from streetlights along James Street North north of Barton to commemorate the contributions of members of Hamilton’s black community to Black History Month, which begins on February 1.Cathie Coward/The Hamilton Spectator

Current ACCA President Evelyn Myrie said the city-funded Black History Month initiative is a first in Hamilton and something the organization has championed for years.

“This is an amazing achievement when it should have happened a long time ago,” Myrie said, adding that the award winners were selected by a coalition of black-led organizations. “These are 16 people that we picked, curated and said they need to be recognized for their contributions to Hamilton.”

Myrie said Monday’s speakers — including Myrie, Terri Bedminster of Refuge Newcomer Health, Kojo Damptey of the Hamilton Center for Civic Inclusion and Gary Warner of McMaster — will address a variety of topics, including the background to the initiative, an introduction to each of the honorees Hamiltonians and Developing a Strategy to Reduce Anti-Black Racism.

“It’s not just about black history,” she said. “It’s about how we create an environment where people feel welcome, respected and valued.”

The banner for Denise Brooks, the executive director of the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre.
The banner for Denise Brooks, the executive director of the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre.Cathie Coward/The Hamilton Spectator

Here are the 16 honored black Hamiltonians:

  • Anita Isaac (1939–2020), educator and health worker.
  • Jack “Jackie” Washington (1919–2009), musician and Canada’s first black disc jockey.
  • Sophia Burthen Pooley (c1772-c1860), slave of Haudenosaunee/Mohawk chief Thayendanegea/Joseph Brant and Samuel Hatt of Ancaster, was legally freed in 1834.

  • Cynthia Taylor (1925–2002), educator.
  • Denise J. Brooks (1956–2020), Executive Director, Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Center.
  • Eleanor Rodney (1938–2020), teacher and founder of the youth organization African Caribbean Cultural Potpourri Inc. (ACCPI).
  • Ethilda (Tillie) Johnson (1929–2016), entrepreneur and honorary doctor of law.
  • Fleurette Osborne (1927–2019), activist and author.
  • John Christie Holland (1882–1954), vicar and signalman.
  • Julia Washington Berry (c1856-c1950), mother and customs officer.
  • Neville Nunes (1931–2016), educator who developed a curriculum on the area’s Black heritage.
  • Norman “Pinky” Lewis (1898–1977), coach of the Tiger Cats and McMaster University.
  • Ray Johnson (1934–2006), football manager of the McMaster Marauders.
  • Rev. Robert Foster (1920-2002), businessman, coach and pastor.
  • Vince Hall (1936-2002), community leader.
  • Wilma Morrison (1929–2020), Black heritage keeper.

The town hall event takes place on January 30th starting at noon with local vendors and a steel pan performance by Luckystickz. At 1:15 p.m., “We Are Hamilton – Black History Remembered” will be unveiled.

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