Black Women Lead the Way

They have supported and uplifted each other and their families and communities, fought discrimination and created social change.
Written by Natasha Henry Posted November 15, 2023

“Sisterhood is powerful.” — Rosemary Brown

The Queen Victoria Benevolent Society was founded in Toronto in the 1840s. It was led by Ellen Toyer Abbott, who was born free in Baltimore, Maryland. She married Wilson Ruffin Abbott and the couple moved to Toronto. (Their son, Anderson Ruffin Abbott, was the first Canadian-born Black doctor.) The society provided money to women in need, including newly arrived freedom-seekers, and to members who were sick or needed help with funeral costs.

The Coloured Women’s Club in Montreal was founded in 1902 by Black women whose husbands worked as sleeping car porters on the trains. Anne Greenup was the first president. The club was formed because white-led charities wouldn’t help Black women in need. It was instrumental in the establishment of the Union United Church in 1909, Montreal’s oldest Black church. The club offered scholarships to Black students, ran a soup kitchen, helped to buy burial plots for families who could not afford it and offered free child care for members.

Windsor, Ontario’s, Hour-A-Day Study Club,which started in 1934 and is still active, is one of the longest-running non-profit, female-driven organizations in Canada. Members pledged to study for one hour every day. They learned about how children develop, visited new mothers and gave books to newborn babies. When young Black women were being prevented from studying nursing, the club wrote to the Ontario Minister of Health and the University of Toronto to demand that they end the discrimination. By the early 1950s, Black women began to be accepted as nursing students and to be hired in hospitals. The group continues to provides scholarships to African-Canadian youth in the Windsor-Essex County region.

“People told me it wasn’t a good idea for a girl to be a lawyer, particularly a coloured girl — so I went ahead.” — Violet King, 1956

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union was the first union just for Black workers. It was created in 1917 because white railway unions wouldn’t allow them to join. Its Ladies Auxiliary members were the porters’ wives and daughters. They organized conventions and raised money to provide scholarships to Black students. Violet King (shown here) received a scholarship from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. She became the first Black Canadian female lawyer in 1954.

The Congress of Black Women of Canada (originally the Canadian Negro Women’s Club) was established in 1973, led by Kay Livingstone. It is a national non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of Black women. It advocates for the human rights of Black women and provides programs for them, protests injustice and offers spaces of community and support.

This article originally appeared in the special "Black History in Canada" 2022 issue of Kayak: Canada's History for Kids.

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