Breaking educational barriers

Carrie Best

In the course of my historical research, I recently came across a study called Black Nova Scotian Women’s Experience of Educational Violence in the Early 1900s: A Case of Colour Contusion. Written in 1997, it shares bitter truths about systemic racism in our province.

Author Bernice Moreau interviewed several Black Nova Scotian women who recalled the organized ways people denied them educational opportunities, and how they fought that exclusion.

The women’s words reveal that the colour of their skin and “the elements of their otherness contributed to their educational oppression.” The voices of these 10 women, who had received their early institutionalized education at white-dominated schools in Nova Scotia, were a part of a larger group of women that she interviewed in the early 1990s.

The interviews were part of a research project that focused on the influence of race, gender, and class had on their educational pursuits. The women shared stories of pain. “They talked about the gate-keeping role of white female (and male) teachers who protected, at any cost, the educational exclusivity,” said Moreau.

One woman who went to school near Truro recalled why she quit going to school in Grade 5.

“My white teacher, who was a woman. treated me as a pet cat, stroking my wavy hair and my tanned looking skin,” she recalled. “Beyond that she never took any interest in my education. I wanted to be a nurse. but the white society then would not allow me to become a nurse or anything but a domestic servant. I hurt an awful lot inside to this day from the way we were treated because of what I looked like and because of my parents, who had broken the rule [by enrolling her in a white-majority school].”

Another woman, who came from a mixed race family, recalls the shocking move from an urban community to a rural school in Amherst.

“Until I went to that school nobody told me that I was coloured and no good,” she said. “In it, I was introduced to the class by the white lady teacher as coloured which seemed to have surprised the white children. From then on I was molested by the white boys, shunned by the white girls, and sometimes, by the children my age who called me horrible names. Every day I ran home crying. My mother who was white went to the school. The teacher told her she couldn’t help it if the children called me names and beat me up. She also said that if my mother chooses to have a n——r child, she must expect children to beat me up.”

Every day the teacher read a story called The Story of Little Black Sambo to the class. “I hated it because the children would call me Sambo and laugh at me for being coloured and silly like Sambo,” she said. “I hated the school so much that I would get sick every school morning. At this point, my father took me to a city school where there were more coloured children. It was not as bad there as it was in the all-white school.”

Moreau’s research lead her to the conclusion that educational opportunities were historically rare for women of Colour, but she also documents inspiring stories of resistance. She shares the story of Carrie Best, the Nova Scotian woman who wrote That Lonesome Road.

She tells readers of her mother’s fight to protect her children from white violence. She also told them that her mother, who could neither read, nor write, had “educated her children about whites’ brutality to Blacks.” She warned them about the barriers they’d face.

Best felt that her mother, as a domestic servant who spent all of her working years in service for white people, understood how whites perceived Blacks, using that knowledge to teach her children how to navigate their world. Daughter Carrie Best followed her advice, becoming an acclaimed  human rights activist, author, journalist, publisher, and broadcaster. She co-founder of The Clarion, one of the first Black-owned publications in the province. She used this platform to advocate for Black rights.

She later recalled her mother’s lessons: “Society has said you are an inferior being, to be a hewer of wood and a drawer of water because you are Black … Remember you are a person, separate and apart from all other persons on earth. The path to your destiny is hidden. You alone must find it.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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