Kamloops was the first city in B.C. to elect a black man to its municipal council: John Freemont Smith in 1903.
Smith was also a businessman, Indian agent and prospector. The Freemont Smith building on 200-block Victoria Street is the legacy of his presence here.
But more than 100 years later, Gail Morong has had a challenge to find much other history involving blacks in Kamloops.
The chair of Thompson Rivers University Faculty Association’s equity committee is well versed in black history in Canada. She was among those who worked to establish February as Black History Month in Prince George when she lived there.
They created events that included dinners, dances, films and talks.
But in 2008, she and her husband brought their family to Kamloops. And she’s starting from scratch to again make Black History Month a community event.
“When we came to Kamloops, there was absolutely no mention of Black History Month,” she said.
Morong is working to change that. So far this month, she has wrapped some bright fabric around her hips, tied on a scarf and led a group in Afro-Caribbean dance at TRU.
She’s also booked a Nigerian storyteller and playwright who will give public presentations at the Kamloops library and at TRU.
Morong is originally from Trinidad. She came to Canada — Winnipeg, actually — to study science. And that’s where she met her Trinidadian husband.
They eventually married and moved to Prince George for work. Morong said there was a fairly sizeable black community there, so Black History Month events got solid support.
While many Canadians associate the month with the U.S., where the population of blacks is large and the history of slavery and segregation is well known, they often don’t realize what occurred in their own country, she said.
Yes, Canada sheltered slaves through the underground railroad out east.
But not all know about Viola Desmond, who was arrested for sitting in a whites-only section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre in 1945. Desmond fought to get the segregation laws repealed and succeeded nine years later.
They also might not be aware of John Ware, a cowboy born into slavery in the U.S. who helped establish Alberta’s ranching industry.
Ware and Desmond are being featured on Canada Post stamps.
Closer to home, Morong pointed out that B.C. colonial governor James Douglas — known locally for establishing the original land base for the Tk’emlups Indian Band — was of mixed blood. His father was Scottish, his mother was a Creole from Barbados who was of European and African ancestry.
Morong said the purpose of Black History Month isn’t to dwell on slavery or racism, but to acknowledge contributions blacks have made to Canada.
“We want to celebrate the good parts,” she said. “Education is one way of fighting racism.”
Those good parts include blacks fighting for Canada against the U.S. in the war of 1812, in the world wars, creating their own militia unit in Victoria, and inventing such things as the elevator, traffic signals, air conditioner, furnace, clothes dryer and refrigerator.
Morong said the more Canadians learn about black history in their own country, the more they will realize the contributions they have made.
“When people think you’re making a contribution, they treat you differently,” she said.
And if anyone is thinking Black History Month events are just for blacks, well, think again.
Morong wants anyone and everyone to attend, regardless of their skin colour or ancestry.
“It’s intended for the whole population,” she said.
“It’s not as if we don’t have anything to learn. A lot of the blacks in Canada don’t know the history.”
And while it might seem odd, Morong studied science in university, not history. She likes finding out about blacks and their contributions to Canada, but she’s not one to pick up a history book.
“I’m actually not a history buff,” she said.
But she is someone who realizes the importance of knowing about the past. And she’s someone willing to bring it to others’ attention.
Stories and music on tap during celebration of Black History Month
Black History Month is being marked in Kamloops this year.
Nigerian-born, Vancouver-based storyteller Comfort Ero is coming to town to do a few presentations.
On Saturday, Feb. 25, she’s at the Kamloops library downtown from 11 a.m. to noon, where she’ll be doing some traditional African storytelling. She’ll be joined by Gail Morong of Thompson Rivers University’s Faculty Association equity committee, who will throw in a little dancing with the event. It’s free and open to all.
On Monday, Feb. 27, Comfort Ero is speaking from 3 to 4:15 p.m. on black women of all times: the slow evolution to a new renaissance. This event is also free and is being held at the Panorama Room, third floor, of TRU’s International Building. Please RSVP to Marian Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Both events are sponsored by the Thompson Rivers University Faculty Association status of women and equity committees.