Detroit high school student explores family ties to Lincoln Alexander, first Black Canadian member of Parliament
For Black History Month, Michigan Radio’s Morning Edition team asked Joielle Speed’s journalism class at Detroit's Renaissance High School what they wanted listeners to hear about.
Brooke White is a senior in the class, and she has a very personal connection to this story, which stretches just across Michigan's northern border.
When Brooke White’s teacher, Mrs. Joielle Speed, asked her journalism class to think about important figures in Black history, Brooke thought about how growing up her mom told her about a relative who had a street named after him in Canada. She knew that he was her grandfather’s cousin, but didn’t know much more. When she got the assignment, she asked her mom about him, and she told her that his name was Lincoln Alexander. She researched him and found out that he was an important Black Canadian. He was the first Black Canadian member of Parliament, the first Black federal Cabinet Minister, and the first Black chair of Ontario’s Workers Compensation Board. They even celebrate National Lincoln Alexander Day all over Canada. She decided she wanted to learn more about him, so she found his granddaughter, Erika Alexander, on Instagram.
Erika understood that her grandfather broke down many barriers, and that ultimately had an impact on his legacy.
“When it comes to my grandfather, he is widely recognized across Canada,” Erika said. “He was always considered to be a very engaging and humble and open conversational person, and he affected so many people's lives. And I think that's what helps to push his legacy. And I mean, there's many, many wonderful and very exceptional black Canadians that we celebrate every year and every month, including Black History Month. But I think for my grandfather, what stands out is just the level that he got to in and during the times that he did. You know, during the fifties and sixties and just making a very big name for himself, being one of the first Blacks to do many things in Canada.”
Alexander’s Proudest Moments
Alexander was a hardworking individual. His accomplishments catapulted him into his success.
“From what I know in our conversations, he was very proud of his education, his schooling, which he was encouraged to do through his mother,” Erika said. “He was also very proud to be the Lieutenant Governor. He was able to really reach and expand his ability to help others in that role. And then he was also very proud of his family, especially his wife, Yvonne. She was like the rock by his side.”
When it comes to racism, Erika says that her grandfather dealt with a lot of that in his personal and professional life.
“He grew up in Toronto, which was predominantly white during that time. So that [racism] was something that he first experienced as a young child and then ended up during his teenage years moving to Harlem with his mother,” Erika said. “There he experienced a completely different, opposite life of being in communities where it was full of black people. So, he was kind of able to see the difference. And then going back to Canada, that was something that stuck with him and especially in the beginning of his education at McMaster University. He did face quite a lot of adversity there, being one of the few black students in the program and then again in law school. And he tells a story about standing up to the dean of the law school when he used the N-word in class. And my grandfather called him out on that. And that's become a story that he told throughout his entire life.”
Cherished Memories of Alexander
Lincoln Alexander was an extraordinary person and was loved by many. Those who knew him personally have fond memories of him, including Erika.
“He was very fun. He was very kind, and he had a great sense of humor,” Erika said. “That's probably one of the biggest things he was known for; having a down-to-earth sense of himself and having a great sense of humor. For me personally, he was very loving and affectionate, and he really loved his family. We were a small family in Canada with him only having one son who was my father, and he was very much in love with his wife, Yvonne. They were married for 50 years before she passed away in 1999.”
“He was kind of a homebody, even though he was a public figure. Some of his favorite things to do were watching TV,” Erika said. “He loved to garden in the backyard. They had a beautiful garden. He liked to walk down to the convenience store. He was the type of person who, no matter how many times he would be stopped if we were out somewhere, he would stop and talk to every single person. And I've always received a lot of stories about him, of how he impacted people personally. I've heard thousands of stories by now, and each one is similar. He just had a very gracious, loving kind of energy about him.”
Words of Wisdom and Sound Advice
Erika was very proud of her grandfather and cherished the advice he gave her.
“The advice that he'd always given my sister and I is just to always stay true to who you are,” Erika said. “Remember where you come from; who your family is. Remember that there's strength just kind of like following the path of our ancestors and remembering what others put down for us to have this life. And he just always said just to work hard, staying in school was always a big thing for him. He was by no means a genius, and he always emphasized how hard he had to work in university and in law school just to get to where he was. It wasn't an easy task. So, it was always just about working hard and staying dedicated to your goals and your path.”
Acknowledging Black History and the Black Diaspora
Brooke White wanted to learn more about her grandfather and his history as a Black historian in Ontario. This project was the perfect opportunity for her to meet a new family member, and Erika agreed.
“I was surprised and shocked at first,” Erika said. “I was excited to learn that I had another family member or a new family member to potentially meet in the future. And, you know, my grandfather's family has always been small in Canada. There's only a few of us here. But knowing that we did have family across the United States and elsewhere, it's just kind of an exciting time for me to know that there is more Alexander family or relatives of my grandfather out there to connect with. And I was just really appreciative that you sought me out and found me and connected with me. I'm really grateful to be doing this interview with you today."