Black History at Queen’s: A Troubled Past
Kevin Akrong details previous racism at Queen's to connect today's campus culture to the seeds of the university's past
February is Black History Month. In Canada, we like to believe racism is not such an issue or as deeply ingrained into our history as our neighbours to the south. This acts as a blinder to the reality that our country and its institutions have a past wrought with racism.
In 1918, all black students were expelled from Queen’s Faculty of Medicine. Soldiers returning from World War I were apparently ‘repugnant at the thought of being treated by blacks’. Queen’s happily acquiesced to the racist demands of soldiers returning from the war. Instead of addressing their blatant racism, Queen’s decided the answer was to forcibly expel the students. These students were in good academic standing, and some weren’t even completing clinical courses. The officials of the medical school did nothing to resist these demands and Queen’s claimed it was unable to provide appropriate instruction to the students because of the prevailing racist attitudes in society. Apparently, the appropriate solution to this problem was to ban the admission of black medical students into the 1940s. By doing so, Queen’s accepted and legitimized the racist attitudes of the soldiers. Little is known about these students’ futures.
Queen’s openly admits and recounts this event in the Queen’s encyclopedia. Interestingly, the entry closes with ‘there were never any restrictions against black students in other faculties’. This reads as if it was some sort of mitigating factor against a racist action by the school. It reads as stepping away from accountability. The multiple faculties don’t exist in a vacuum – expelling all the black students in one faculty could have an adverse effect on the diversity in other faculties. Black students who remained at Queen’s may have felt unsafe and unwanted. Prospective black students may have chosen other institutions for their studies or skipped post-secondary education completely.
Queen’s troubled past doesn’t end with the expulsion of the black medical students. Alfred Pierce, popularly known as Alfie, is one example of this troubled past. Alfie, a local Kingston black man, became the ‘object of amusement’ for the white Queen’s football team. Alfie likely loved his job, but the living conditions he was subject to were inhumane. In the summer, he lived in a room under a stadium and in the winter, a boiler room. The Queen’s encyclopedia notes conflicting reports about his living conditions, particularly whether he had to share his living space with the Queen’s mascot, Boo Hoo the Bear – an actual bear. It’s worth noting Boo Hoo the Bear was sent to the zoo, because, like most wild animals, he became vicious. Conflicting reports also exist surrounding his death from a stroke in 1951. Alfie’s body lay on the gym floor for two hours and his possessions sold to pay for his funeral. Local newspapers reported that his body lay in state in the gym, ‘surrounded by floral tributes’ and all types of students, staff and local community members came to pay their respects. While the truth is unknown, it is upsetting conflicting reports about Alfie’s treatment even exist.
I wrote this account because it’s worth remembering how we got to where we are now. It’s troubling and saddening, but I hope it helps to remove the rose coloured glasses. The same racist attitudes of the soldiers that led to the expulsion of the black medical students manifest in our society through subtle bias and covert prejudice. It’s important to remember how Queen’s standing idly can create an environment where racism thrives. We need to acknowledge institutions – such as Queen’s University – are not perfect and play a strong role in correcting and righting the wrongs of its past.
Kevin Akrong is a 1L student at Queen’s Law.