The Ontario Black History Society recently honoured two women from the Don Mills area for their commitment to education and preserving African-Canadian history.
Penny Hodge, 91, and Millicent Burgess, 88, received the Mary Matilda Winslow and Reverend Addie Aylestock awards respectively at the society’s annual brunch on Jan. 29.
The two women both immigrated to Toronto in the 1950s. Hodge moved from Nova Scotia looking for work and remembers the city then as a very different place.
“When I came here most men were still working on the railroads,” she said. “Simpson’s and Eaton’s and all those (department) stores didn’t hire coloured people.”
She recalls going to the Young Women’s Christian Association to look for lodging, and watching as the social worker continuously got hung up on as she tried to find her a room in a private home.
She soon learned it was because after the social worker would say ‘I have a young woman looking for lodging’, she would quietly add ‘But she’s a Negro’.
“I thought ‘Oh my lord … I’m going to be sleeping on the streets tonight if this woman keeps telling people I’m a Negro,’” Hodge said with a good-hearted laugh.
Eventually, she managed to find a room with another black woman and found work in human resources with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
For Burgess, who moved to Canada from Bermuda in 1950 on a scholarship, the culture shock was not as profound.
“I didn’t find it a problem because I had been exposed to this by going to the States for two years, at New York University’s early childhood course,” she said. “And I was the only black one there.”
So she wasn’t surprised when she came to Toronto to find a mostly Anglo-Saxon city.
“I remember when I came here to stay permanently, it took my husband and I about three months before we saw another black face,” she said.
Despite this, she said she never had any problems as a teacher at the Toronto District School Board, starting her career in 1957 and working for 35 years.
The society’s president, Rosemary Sadlier, said Burgess was recognized for her strong commitment to education and for the fact she was one of Toronto’s school board’s first black teachers.
“The idea that Millie committed herself to a very high calling, a higher purpose, she was a very dedicated educator,” said Sadlier. “It’s interesting how she’s been able to give back in that way.”
In fact, the society believes Burgess may have started teaching shortly before Wilson Oliver Brooks, who was born in Canada and is officially listed as Toronto’s first black teacher on the board’s website.
“I’ve been trying to verify it, but we now believe that Millicent Burgess was the first black teacher for the Toronto District School Board,” said Sadlier.
Sadlier added that Hodge was awarded because of all she has done to enrich the understanding of African-Canadian history.
In addition to her membership with the society, Hodge was involved with the Canadian Negro Women’s Association and the First Baptist Church, where she served as a historian for about 30 years.
“I would say that it’s her commitment to the organizations that she volunteered with that has really broadened our awareness of African-Canadian history,” Sadlier said.
Hodge’s historical knowledge was consulted for Dr. Daniel G. Hill’s book The Freedom Seekers.
The descendent of black loyalists who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783, Hodge grew interested in African-Canadian history when she noticed people in Toronto would be surprised or skeptical when she told them she and her parents had been born in Canada.
“That’s when I realized that white people here didn’t know that black people had been in this country for over 300 years,” she said.
Now living in a senior’s apartment in Don Mills, she said many Canadians her age don’t know much about African-Canadian history. And she wants to change that.
“I knew I had to teach a little history here,” she said. “So every year I do a program here on black history.”
As part of Black History Month, they will be watching Amistad.
Both women said they were pleased to receive the recognition for contributing to Canadian society.
The Mary Matilda Winslow Award is named after the first black woman to graduate from the University of New Brunswick with a bachelor’s degree, while the Reverend Addie Aylestock Award was named after Canada’s first ordained black female minister.
“I was so happy to have her award,” said Burgess. “I just felt very proud.”
Hodge was equally as proud to see how much things have changed since she first moved to Toronto, from the election of America’s first black president, to the prominent role African-Canadians play in all levels of society today.
“I was so pleased with Obama, it’s exciting,” said Hodge. “I’m so glad I’ve lived to see it all.”