The Little Black Schoolhouse

- December 1, 2008

Professor Sylvia Hamilton. (Nick Pearce Photo)

Note to Cinematographer: Don’t try anything fancy with this shoot. Keep it simple. The power of the script is its subject – and she stands on her own.

Flash back: It’s the first day of high school classes for future Nova Scotia filmmaker and writer Sylvia Hamilton (MA’00, LLD’01). She is the only student of African descent in her class. Her teacher gives her a form to take home which, when completed, will direct Dr. Hamilton into the non-academic stream. The teacher says, “…If you can get through high school, maybe you’ll get a little job for yourself.”  

Voice-over: “And I say that I don’t deal with her intentions because she may well have been the most well-intentioned person, thinking that this was, in her mind, the best thing. I have no idea. All I know is that there was a judgment made about me that this teacher had no right to make, no basis upon which to make, other than race.”

Flash forward: Sylvia’s mother, Marie, a graduate of the provincial Normal College in Truro, does not complete the form and Dr. Hamilton remains in the academic stream. As Dr. Hamilton explains, she becomes the first high school graduate from the Black community of Beechville, NS. She goes on to earn undergraduate, graduate and honorary degrees.

Dr. Hamilton doesn’t want to be singled out for praise. Instead, she speaks of the many Black people who were bright and could have achieved, but “the system just spit them out in really bad ways … It’s not that people have not tried, it’s not that people haven’t wanted – it’s that there are points where the level of this institutionalized racism and neglect has been very profound and I think often invisible to the majority white community.”

Zoom in: Not so invisible now, thanks to Dr. Hamilton’s newest work, The Little Black School House, which she wrote, directed and produced through her company Maroon Films Inc. (and distributed via Moving Images Distribution). She describes the film as “a story about the struggle of African Canadians for dignity and equality in education.”

In this work and in the films Black Mother Black Daughter and Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia, Dr. Hamilton reveals the complexities, shortcomings and power of education. Her work is not a detached study. Her insights are shaped, in part, from lessons learned from her mother, who taught in segregated schools, and her own experiences, which include attending a segregated school during her early elementary school years.  

In all of her work, she's tried to incorporate a learning opportunity for someone from the community.

Through its study of segregated schools in Ontario and Nova Scotia (the Canadian Encyclopedia notes Ontario’s last segregated school closed in 1965, and, according to Dr. Hamilton’s film, in 1983 in Nova Scotia), The Little Black School House reveals a part of Canada’s history unknown to many.

In the film, Prof. Michelle Williams (BSW’91), Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq Program director of Dalhousie Law School, explains that there was “a legal framework in addition to a longstanding custom of segregation in schooling in Nova Scotia that permitted segregated schools to exist.”

First-hand accounts from students and teachers who experienced the segregated school system and systemic racism bring Prof. Williams’ words to life. There are tales of teachers’ dedication and creativity in the face of limited resources and there are stories of blatant racism towards students who attended common schools.

“It was essential for me to try to capture as many of these experiences on film as possible,” Dr. Hamilton says. “So those who lived it would have some validation of what they had experienced, and so those who denied that this existed or those who had no idea, would be able to see.” 

And perhaps see the potential that was lost because of racism. “Historian David States, from the Windsor Plains area, talks about when he hit junior high (in a common school) and a lot of his colleagues – kids he would have gone to elementary school with in the segregated school – just couldn’t hack it. They couldn’t hack the racism and so they fell by the wayside.”

Back story: Dr. Hamilton grew up in Beechville, the second youngest of Gerald and Marie Hamilton’s six children. Gerald was a labourer and Marie taught in a number of segregated schools.

“Even to this day I run into people who will say, ‘Your mother was my teacher,’ and they have just such incredible memories about what she did for them and how she cared for them,” Dr. Hamilton says. And it wasn’t only the students she guided. Dr. Hamilton says teachers would often help parents, who might have little education, complete forms and papers.

Dr. Hamilton fondly recalls her first teacher, Marion Skinner, and her encouragement and instruction in such areas as spelling, deportment and mathematics. After Dr. Hamilton left the segregated Beechville school she encountered what was a “very alien environment.”

“To go through a system and to not have anybody that looks like you or that has some understanding of who you are, never mind what you’re opening your books to find….” Dr. Hamilton says, noting that she and those she grew up with “wouldn’t take for granted that we’d open our schoolbooks and see people who would look like us or learn something about people of African descent that was positive or that told us something about that heritage. That just was not there.”

So it was found in other places, such as the African Baptist church in the community. It was there, for example, that Dr. Hamilton learned about public speaking through church-organized oratorical contests.

“That was the key place that I think young people began to see something of themselves, were encouraged. They had Baptist youth organizations….You weren’t necessarily encouraged at school, but for those who were able to take advantage of it, that happened at the community level and was really significant.”

Zoom out: The Little Black School House has been on TV, played to a packed house at the Oxford movie theatre in Halifax, and screened for high school and university students. 

Dr. Hamilton says: “The response has been very, very good in the sense that people have been interested, jolted, surprised, moved to tears, confounded, and also grateful that it exists, that they could see it and they could talk about it and they would know something that they hadn’t known before.”

Pat Kipping met Dr. Hamilton more than 30 years ago while working with Reel Life – the Women’s Media Collective. Their paths have crossed many times since then, including when Ms. Kipping served on the regional programming committee for the National Film Board.

When asked what Dr. Hamilton has contributed to filmmaking in Nova Scotia, Ms. Kipping says: “She’s told stories that nobody else was interested in telling or willing to take the time to tell or probably couldn’t tell, because she brings a first voice experience, and she could get the trust of the community.”

Ms. Kipping says Dr. Hamilton has broadened the conception of what is Nova Scotia for regional, national and international audiences. “If they look at Sylvia’s films…they can’t see Nova Scotia as just New Scotland. They have to see it as a place that’s been built by many different peoples, especially black Nova Scotians – a community that has been successfully made invisible by systemic racism for 300 years.”

Ms. Kipping explains that while many documentaries are based on a book or research already in existence, Dr. Hamilton carries out primary research “and if there is historic backup and background that she’s used, often she’s participated in some way in gathering that … or she has mentored and helped along historians or other people who have done that.”

Two shot: Dr. Hamilton has long practised mentorship. She says that in all of her work she’s tried to incorporate a learning opportunity for someone from the community. “I’ve always believed that it’s important to encourage people of a different generation because I received that from generations before me,” she says. “So it really is the next stage to pass that forward.”

Two of the individuals she’s mentored are Dalhousie academic advisor Quenta Tynes  (BA’93) and Chronicle Herald staff reporter Sherri Borden Colley .

Ms. Tynes worked with Dr. Hamilton on a variety of projects, including helping to coordinate a workshop for women from marginalized communities who might be interested in film production, and assisting with a series of CBC television vignettes with an African Nova Scotian focus.

“She really did give me an opportunity I don’t know if I necessarily would have found elsewhere,” Ms. Tynes says. “And for that I’m forever grateful because I think that it has certainly helped my own personal and professional development.”

Ms. Tynes speaks to the difference Dr. Hamilton has made through her films. “I think she’s given people a voice who wouldn’t normally have it in a public venue,” she says. “Within the Black community we do have opportunities to share amongst ourselves, but our stories are important for everyone to hear. So doing this allows voices to be heard, allows different perspectives. It makes our stories more real.”

Ms. Borden Colley was production assistant on Dr. Hamilton’s Gemini Award-winning film, Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia. “I know people don’t like to be called a role model, but she certainly is because she gave me and she gives so many other young aspiring journalists and filmmakers an opportunity. Without Sylvia, many of us would have never been able to meet a lot of people in either the film or journalism worlds.”

Today,  Ms. Borden Colley also passes it forward through presentations to students from elementary to university. She speaks on a variety of topics including her personal experiences.  

“I always try to encourage and pass along a positive message to them. I think not only as Black women but as members of the Black community we need to do that, because a lot of times there are challenges that leave people hopeless and my message is there’s hope out there ... It goes right back to the messages and the words Sylvia has given me over the years.”

Hope tempered with the recognition that there is still much work to be done. “When I watched The Little Black School House the question that came to my mind was, have we really come that far? The same struggles, to a different degree, but the same struggles that the elders in the film faced, our students today are still facing,” Ms. Borden Colley says. “And I’m glad Sylvia is reminding us that the dialogue needs to continue, that there’s still a battle – and that’s very sad. I have a two-year-old son and I’m thinking, ‘what’s it going to be like for him three years from now (when he starts school)?’ I shouldn’t have to worry about that, but what’s it going to be like for him?”

Montage: To compile a script detailing Dr. Hamilton’s life work would be a major task. In addition to all of the above, scenes would need to be dedicated to her contribution to the organization of Dalhousie Law School’s Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq Program and the university’s James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies. Also highlighted would be her past service on the advisory board of the Transition Year Program for First Nations and African Canadian students and her current service on the Dalhousie Art Gallery advisory committee.

Added to that would be family scenes with her husband Bev Greenlaw (BA’80, MEd’89), former Dalhousie’s men’s basketball coach, and their daughter Shani (BJ’08), a recent King’s graduate who majored in theatre. There would be another scene with her younger brother Wayn Hamilton, CEO of the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs. There could also be shots of her working with students at King’s School of Journalism, where she teaches an advanced television workshop.

Perhaps the final scene would show her engaged in a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion with the audience at a screening of her work. And then as that image fades out, these words from Ms. Kipping would be heard: “She’s a true humanitarian…she’s done what great artists do: They paint what they know, they write what they know, they make films about what they know. And she has taken what she knows and she’s turned it into a scholarly pursuit and an artistic pursuit and a social justice pursuit.”


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