Black Manitobans you need to know about

Keith Sandiford

Keith Sandiford remembers being the only black person on the bus in Winnipeg — and among the faculty at the University of Manitoba.

Black people were scarce in Winnipeg when the Barbadian took a chance on the city, coming here in the 1960s as a history professor.

He tells the story of his friend, a new teacher, puzzling one household in a small hamlet in western Manitoba in the late 1960s.

One of the children “went home at lunch to tell the parents there was a chocolate [teacher] on staff,” said Sandiford, an accomplished author who has written many books on black history and cricket.

“The parents could not believe what the kid was saying, so they went to the school.”

The contributions of black people have been entwined into the being of Manitoba from the province’s formation, but few of those figures were elevated to mainstream consciousness the way Louis Riel or Duff Roblin were. While remarkable, the lives of many black Manitobans were shrouded in relative obscurity.

Monica Stothers

Sandiford has tried to change that, in part, by tracking the names and accomplishments of many Caribbeans residing in Manitoba at the turn of the millennium.

A decade earlier, high school students from St. John’s High School shone a light on some of those stories. Originally pitched as a pamphlet, their history project became a 123-page book, The Black Experience in Manitoba: A Collection of Memories. It documents the lives of 40 black people who helped shape the province.

Their books remain one of the few authoritative texts on the contributions of black Manitobans.

Here’s a look at a few of those celebrated figures.

Doctor and community leader: June James

Black youths looking for a role model need look no further than June James.

Lee Williams

That was the praise of Wade “Kojo” Williams, the late president of the National Black Coalition of Canada, who marvelled at the life of James, an accomplished doctor in the study of allergies who remains a celebrated community member to this day.

An expert in immunology, James also served as president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba (2003-2004) and the Manitoba Allergy Society, as well as chairperson of the Allergy and Immunology Section of the Manitoba Medical Association.

She was made a member of the Order of Manitoba in 2004.

She has been a vigorous supporter of community projects, from volunteering with numerous boards to helping build an affordable-housing complex in Winnipeg.

Fighting discrimination: Wade ‘Kojo’ Williams

Wade “Kojo” Williams is remembered as an outspoken voice against injustice.

June James

Born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the human rights activist immigrated to Winnipeg in 1975, where he organized Black History Month celebrations in Winnipeg and defended members of the African and Caribbean community from discrimination

For three decades, “he used to scare the daylight out of politicians,” Sandiford said.

Williams, who died in 2012, founded various organizations in the city, including the Manitoba Coalition of Organizations Against Apartheid and Racism, and Students Against Apartheid.

He worked as a teacher, police officer and later a youth worker.

A 1st for Winnipeg’s police force: Monica Stothers

Monica Stothers made history when she became the first black woman to join what was then called the Winnipeg Police Department.

As a member of the police academy — from which she graduated in 1988 — Stothers put pressure on herself because she knew that receiving a police badge would open the door for other black women to achieve the same feat, she told the writers of The Black Experience in Manitoba.

Stothers said years later that it was important for the force to have diversity on the ground.

“It sends a huge message to the black community that at the police department, we do care,” she said in a 2006 interview. “The black community does count.”