How to celebrate Black History Month in Vancouver

Joe Fortes instructs local swimmers, circa 1905 (City of Vancouver Archives)

Black History Month has been a February tradition since 1926. In 2012, for the first time in Vancouver history, the City of Vancouver partnered with the Vancouver celebration organizers to host a slew of Black History Month events.

The collaboration is welcome; Vancouver has a rich tapestry of Black history and the more support the celebration receives, the more we’ll learn. Did you know that Seraphim “Joe” Fortes (pictured above) who moved to Vancouver from Barbados became English Bay’s first official lifeguard in 1901?

Find out about Vancouver urban history and Black History Month after the jump. I’ve also listed highlights from the packed schedule of Black History Month events including film, music and performance.

Hogan's Alley in 1958 (City of Vancouver Archives)

Regional Black history

According to the City of Vancouver event page, it all began in 1858 when nearly 800 free Black people left the oppressive racial conditions of San Francisco for a new life on Vancouver Island. Governor James Douglas (who strove to be perceived as Caucasian although his father was Scottish and his mother Guyanese) invited the settlers to remain in British Columbia in return for working the land and keep the Island a part of the British Empire.

Around 1900, the Black community from Vancouver Island began to emigrate to the mainland. Most settled in North Vancouver and in Hogan’s Alley, part of Vancouver ‘s Strathcona neighbourhood.

Eight feet wide and a few blocks long (running between Union and Prior streets from the alley east of Main Street, called Park Lane, to Jackson Street) the alley was home to everything from cafes to gambling joints. In the mid 1930s, Hogan’s Alley became a target for an anti-vice campaign. Minor shack demolition occurred near the end of the decade, but most survived up to the 1960s. Sadly, most of the Alley was leveled by the construction of the Georgia Viaduct in the 70s. About a block remains today.

Event highlights from Black History Month in Vancouver

Thursday, February 9 – Saturday, March 10
THEATRE: Intimate Apparel

A New York City-based romance between 35-year-old Esther – an independent African-American woman who makes a living sewing exquisite undergarments – and a mysterious stranger from the Caribbean. Visit The Arts Club Theatre site for ticket info.

Thursday, February 9 (doors at 6:30pm)

MOVIE: The Godmother of Rock & Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
This gritty slice of music history features African-American gospel singing superstar Sister Rosetta Tharpe who was beloved by Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Robert Plant. Tharpe is acknowledged as inspiration for rock & roll greats of the 40s, 50s and 60s. This exciting evening will include live music from Vancouver blues and gospel guitarist Chelsea D.E. Johnson. Visit Vancity Theatre for tickets.

Friday, February 10 (8pm)
MUSIC: Stayed on Freedom! A Musical Celebration of Black History Month
A joyous, high-energy gala that pays homage to the rich tradition of Black music in North America. The full bill includes 65-voice Marcus Mosely Chorale, the 95-voice City Soul Choir, Juno-nominated gospel trio the Sojourners with special guest appearance by local legend Leon Bibb, who turns 90 today, February 7. Tickets are $25/$20. The concert takes place at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church (Burrard & Nelson).

Thursday, February 23 (doors at 6:30pm)

PERFORMANCE: Skins & Steel
A lively combination of music, dance, CBC vault footage, and a film commentary on mixed race children that pays tribute to the African Diaspora’s Caribbean influence on Vancouver during the 50s. Visit Vancity Theatre for tickets.

Saturday, February 25 (from 1pm)
EVENT: Black History Month Children’s Festival
An inter-generational day featuring games, history, storytelling, face painting, music, live performances, and an open mic for those with something to share. Bonus: Caribbean food on site. Admission – adults $5.00 / children $2.00 at Bonsor Community Center in Burnaby.

Monday, February 27 (7pm)

MOVIE: The Mighty Jerome
While living in North Vancouver, this Olympic competitor was one of Canada’s leading athletes and set track records in the 1950s and 60s, becoming known as “the world’s fastest man”. Free; Vancouver Public Library

Black History Month runs February 1-29. Find the full Black History Month event schedule here. Read more about notable Vancouverites in Black history here.

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