A new plaque unveiled Sunday honours the history of Hogan’s Alley, a physical marker to acknowledge the history of Vancouver’s black community. At the event, local writer and organizer Wayde Compton shared the following introductory remarks, reviewing a decade of efforts to recognize the city’s black history and acknowledging those who have contributed to the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project.
In 2001 I edited and published an anthology called Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature, in which I reprinted five interviews that had originally been created for a 1978 anthology called Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End, edited by Daphne Marlatt and Carol Itter.
In these interviews, these five former residents of Vancouver’s East End spoke of the black community they knew and were a part of, and of Hogan’s Alley and its destruction under this city’s urban renewal plans of the 1950s and ’60s.
After the book came out, my friend Sheilagh Cahill emailed me asking to meet for lunch. Though my reprinting of these interviews was only one more link in the succession of many people who have been keeping the memory of Vancouver’s black history alive, it spurred her to seek me out, and during our lunch we both lamented the fact that, at that time, the erasure of the black presence in this part of the city was so complete that there were no markers at all in the 21st century — when one came to this area — that there had ever been a thriving black presence on these streets in the 20th century.
Sheilagh is someone I knew from black community activism in the 1990s, a white woman whose activism in this community comes from the best of places; as a mother of two black children, her goal has always been to tackle to the best of her abilities the institutionalized racism she knew they would face growing up and living here.
At some point in our initial conversation, Sheilagh said, “Well, there ought to be a plaque” — to mark the history, to let someone walking here know that there was a black community here and that it was edged out by an unfair urban policy. And so we grouped with others who were interested in keeping this memory alive, and began a group called the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project in 2002.
The purpose was not just to push for such a plaque, but also to educate ourselves and others about the history. During that time, I must say, we were helped by others, both within the black community and by those from other communities, far more than we ever felt obstructed.
Most of the people we spoke to wanted to see us succeed, were both interested and compelled by the history we were trying to uncover, and shared with us a variety of tips, personal connections, memories, opportunities to present, venues to speak at, columns to appear in, exhibition and gallery space, web features, voluntary research, photographs, and on and on.
I really have felt throughout this process that most people we reached out to wanted us to succeed. And here we are. With this plaque, so generously made possible by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, we leave behind a certain kind of civic silence about this city’s black community.
A physical marker here, as simple as it is, speaks loudly about a community that people too often seem surprised exists at all. This city has more than 20,000 people who identify themselves as black, there will be thousands more in the future, here, to stay, always, and this plaque is a step towards welcoming us at last, and welcoming us permanently.
Thanks and acknowledgements
The first acknowledgement that we must make is to the fact that we are on unceded Coast Salish territory, and that as we mark the displacement of the black community from this area, we recognize that is against the backdrop of the larger displacement of colonialism itself.
To the Vancouver Heritage Foundation for making this plaque a reality.
To the Neighbourhood Small Grants Program and the Onni Group.
To the Hogan’s Alley Cafe for hosting us and keeping the name present on these streets.
To the elders for surviving and shepherding us into the future.
To the inimitable Jessica Quan for being an organizational powerhouse and keeping us together over the past months.
And to those who publicized the history of the black community of the East End over the years, including activists of the Negro Citizens’ League, the BCAACP, the Black Cultural Association, the Black History Month committees over the past decades, the National Congress of Black Women, Daphne Marlatt and Carol Itter for their book Opening Doors, Andrea Fatona and Cornelia Wyngaarten for their documentary film Hogan’s Alley, all the past members of the Hogan’s Alley Memorial Project (Sheilagh Cahill, Junie Desil, Joy Russell, Adam Rudder, Brian Johnson, Mwalu Peeters, Naomi Moyer, and Karina Vernon) and the Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective, including Tanya Cromwell and Kevan Cameron, all the Hogan’s Alley Poetry Festival volunteers, to Brenda Racanelli from the Roundhouse Community Centre for early support, to Lauren Marsden, to Terry Hunter and Savannah Walling of the Vancouver Moving Theatre, to all the historians including John Atkin, James Johnstone and Lani Russwurm, to Vincent Fodera for creating the Jimi Hendrix Shrine, to the City of Vancouver Archives and the Vancouver Public Library for featuring educational material on the community, to all the high school, college, and university teachers who have invited us to speak and/or taught the subject, to Crawford Kilian and Anthony Brown for their histories of the community, to one very wonderful, generous anonymous donor, and to all the writers, editors, curators, event programmers, publishers, including my publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press, conference organizers, journalists, librarians, and community activists, social housing advocates and DTES activists who all over the years kept the history of the community in print, on the airwaves, and on the web so that it would not be forgotten — and to anyone I’ve forgotten, and to everyone here has come out to witness this event — thank you all.
Wayde Compton is a Vancouver writer whose books include After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing, and Region, Performance Bond, Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature and 49th Parallel Psalm.