Hamilton’s Black history is filled with some of the greatest stories never told.
That includes the story of Raymond “Rapid Ray” Gray Lewis, the first Black Canadian to win an Olympic medal.
In 1932, he ran in the 4×400-metre relay race at the summer games in Los Angeles, and won an Olympic bronze medal.
It’s the work of 22-year-old Hamiltonian, Aaron Parry. He is the author and illustrator commissioned by the ACCA to write and illustrate the book — as well as the lead researcher for a new Hamilton Black History Database that is launching this month.
About the book, Parry says “Aside from making it accessible, we also wanted to make it something that [children] would actually enjoy and that celebrates Black history while also teaching them about the history of our community in Hamilton specifically.”
And Parry believes that children in Hamilton needed to know and celebrate “Rapid Ray.”
Lewis was born in Hamilton to descendants of the Underground Railroad who escaped slavery. Early on, he joined the Canadian Pacific Railway as a porter. He would train for international competitions by running along the tracks whenever the train stopped to be serviced. Outside the track, Lewis devoted his time to fighting racism and discrimination.
Evelyn Myrie, president of the ACCA, said the idea for the activity book came about because people in the city just don’t know about Hamilton’s Black history. As children complete the activities, they will be prompted to show love for their hair and skin and learn about the Underground Railroad and historical sites like Stewart Memorial House and Griffin House. They will also learn about important figures like Wilma Morrison, Lincoln Alexander, and Reverend John C. Holland.
NDP MP Matthew Green is also featured in the book
You can also read about Matthew Green’s story. He’s the NDP MP for Hamilton Centre and, in 2014, became the first Black person elected to serve on Hamilton’s city council. He says the book is “a historic curriculum” and an “opportunity for children of all ages and races to have in their hands” and “know that our contribution has been historic, is ongoing, and also contemporary.”
Green says that, as a parent, the book means a lot to him. He said “I have a five-year-old son, who for all intents and purposes in society will be white. He won’t know necessarily the same experiences that I had, but he’ll get a chance to learn about it, recognize it and appreciate it in these types of projects.”
While Deeply Rooted is centred around and made for Black children, Parry said that he also kept in mind the need for the book to be accessible to non-Black children.
“It’s important for us to acknowledge the fact that while we need to take care of our children and teach them how to love themselves better and how to actually be confident in their identity, culture, background, tradition and ancestors” he said. “It’s also very important for us to acknowledge the fact that we have to teach other children how best to interact with our community and how to respect us.”
For Green, the book offers Black Canadians a chance to correct misconceptions around what it means to be Black in Canada. He said “It feels like Canadian society would prefer to relegate the struggles of African Canadians or Black people in diaspora to an American experience as a way to maple wash the complicity of our own involvement in settler colonialism, white supremacy, the transatlantic slave trade and ongoing struggles. There’s a long history of contribution and overcoming struggle and when we tell our own stories, we regain and reclaim our history.”
He said “There’s a lot of contribution left to be made and at this point, recognizing some of the ceilings and barriers that are being broken having just passed Lincoln Alexander Day for instance…I’m hopeful this next generation will continue to produce people who will continue to be present at decision making tables and contribute in the way that we always have in this city.”
The ACCA would like to get Deeply Rooted‘ into the Hamilton school system and potentially turn it into a series on Hamilton’s rich and vibrant Black history.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.