Unveiling Queen’s forgotten Black History

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I asked Edward Thomas, Sc’06, MASc’12, to write a guest blog about Black History Month at Queen’s focusing on the research he’s conducted over this past year around one of the most shameful events in our university’s history: the expulsion of black medical students in 1918.

I am both fascinated and saddened by what he has uncovered, and hope to work with Edward and others to acknowledge these very troubling events in our history, the legacies of the students we abandoned and make some kind of amends.

Many thanks to Edward for his research and lending his expertise to this post.

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The roots of Black History Month date to the 1920s. The American scholar Carter G. Woodson, PhD., understood how the stories a society tells itself can either expand or limit its sense of what’s possible. He first promoted the February observance to expand his nation’s sense of what black life meant to its past, present and future. He positioned the annual commemoration in opposition to historians who ignored black contributions and achievements. But Woodson’s Black History Month aspired to more than annual recitations of well-known tales—he wanted to engage everyone’s curiosity and remind us how black people have contributed to all stages of our national, local and institutional stories. He wanted people to understand that Black History is intertwined with Everyone’s History.

I learned last year just how deeply Black History is woven into Queen’s history as I researched the circumstances and consequences of our university’s notorious expulsion of black medical students in 1918.

I entered this work, framing Queen’s Black History as a retelling of the financial benevolence of Robert Sutherland in 1878 and Alfie Pierce’s decades of minstrelsy ending in 1951. I emerged from this work having discovered something much more expansive — scores of black medical students between 1900 and 1922 who became medical heroes, statesmen, patrons, tycoons, clerics, builders, activists and advocates. In their time, these alumni became historically significant engines of changes affecting us all. I had the honour of presenting 10 of their stories on February 15 at Robert Sutherland Hall (thanks to Queen’s African and Caribbean Students Association).

The individual stories are remarkable. They include Dr. Hugh G. H. Cummins (Premier of Barbados), Dr. Clement Courtney Ligoure (North-End medical hero of the Halifax explosion), Dr. Simeon A. Hayes (co-founding director of C.L. Financial) and many others. The personal and professional networks of Queen’s 1900-1922 black medical alumni intersected many of the leading thinkers of the 20th century. Even more remarkable is that their names remained unacknowledged at Queen’s for 100 years.

The research of Queen’s early black medical alumni overturns a 100-year-old narrative about the nature of the 1918 expulsions, their immediate consequence and their ultimate meaning to this university’s development. The research shows how Queen’s was Canada’s leading centre for black professional education in 1917. The research demonstrates the alumni’s significant roles in shaping history in Canada and around the world. The research expands our consideration of what Queen’s could have, but did not, contribute to the 20th century’s long march in the direction of social, economic and political progress.

There are troubling implications stemming from this work. The evidentiary rationale for the university’s historic turn against black students is troubling. The unsettled matter of our official resolutions against black students is troubling. Our broken relationship with the legacies of the affected black students is troubling. Most troubling is the intervening century during which our community of scholars, myself included, has ignored the contributions and achievements of these black alumni. If one can know a culture by observing the stories it tells about itself, one can know a university’s character by the effort it expends to faithfully understand its own history. This year’s Black History Month has given us new way points to explore and understand Queen’s history.

Edward Thomas

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