Little Burgundy in Montreal was called the Harlem of the North. Its wildly successful jazz club was called Rockhead’s Paradise. They would bring acts like Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday to town.
Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver was a vibrant neighborhood with a largely black population. Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother lived in Hogan’s Alley and he visited her on a number of occasions.
Africville was a thriving black community in Halifax for close to 160 years.
Amber Valley near Edmonton in Alberta where a group of 160 African-American homesteaders established the community in 1909.
Stories about these and other black communities from across Canada form the backbone of “Tracking Black Canada,” the latest Overture with the Arts production. The show tours Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia over the course of Black History Month. The schedule is here.
Overture with the Arts was established by Kirkland resident Akilah Newton 10 years ago. Her twin brother Omari, an actor, slam poet, playwright and stand-up comedian, is the performer in the productions the two created to fill what they saw as a void in the black history experience. The show combines PowerPoint, hip-hop, slam poetry and a measure of student participation.
“Omari and I grew up in a home surrounded by black history,” Newton said. “But at school our background and contributions were strangely absent. When Black History Month started to gain momentum in schools, it consisted of stories about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, etc., but with very little, or nothing, about our rich heritage right here in Canada.”
“Tracking Black Canada” not only underlines the contribution of these black communities from across the country, it details their demise, brought on by “urban renewal” projects spearheaded by city administrations. Africville was bulldozed between 1965 and 1969. Half of Hogan’s Alley was leveled to build a freeway.
Little Burgundy is where jazz greats Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones grew up. It’s home to Union United Church, the oldest black congregation in Canada.
“Because it was located close to the train station, porters and their wives came to Union United to worship,” Newton said. “Club owner Rufus Rockhead ran Rockhead’s Paradise in a time when it was unheard of for a black man to own a business and have a liquor licence.”
Rockhead’s Paradise closed in 1980. The closure was followed by the construction of the Ville-Marie Expressway. The neighbourhoods’s demographic has shifted ever since.
“This year we are doing 55 presentations,” Newton said. “Every year, the tour grows. There is a craving for this type of material.”
Two Overture with the Arts events are open to the public. The annual Caribbean Luncheon is at the Centre Communautaire Gerry-Robertson, 9665 Gouin Blvd. in Pierrefonds, Feb. 8 from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Hosted by media personality Catherine Verdon-Diamond, the luncheon’s special guest is Zanana Akande, the first black woman to be elected to the Ontario legislature and serve as a cabinet minister. Omari Newton will perform excerpts from the show.
And Tracking Black Canada will be performed, in its entirety, at the Pierrefonds Public Library, 13555 Pierrefonds Blvd., Feb. 17 at 2 p.m.
In 2018, Newton and co-author Tami Gabay self-published Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids Volume 1 (Bright Confetti Media Inc.). The focus was on high-achieving Canadian black men and women. Volume 2 will be ready by early June. It will focus black communities in Canada.
You can visit Overture with the Arts here. ◊