Celebrating the Black Canadian Athlete
This month, we take time to reflect on our past and honour the ones who came before us. The ones who shaped history, laid groundwork for change, and helped level the playing field in their respective sports. Those, who despite their lasting impact, have stories that are largely untold or yet to be heard by the modern sports fan. We spotlight the unsung history of Black Canadian athletes who excelled amidst adversity, broke down barriers, and moved the needle forward for the generations that came after them.
We celebrate four women and men whose incredible individual accolades are only overshadowed by the instrumental contributions they’ve made to enriching Canada’s sports heritage for the world to see.
Throughout the month of February, we will be donating 10% of all sales every Monday to the Time To Dream Foundation, that aims to make youth sports more diverse, inclusive, affordable and accessible to all, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic background.
An enigmatic track star, Henry “Harry” Winston Jerome, was a true Canadian icon far ahead of his time in more ways than one. During the 60’s, Jerome was ranked the fastest man on Earth on multiple occasions, setting a precedent of excellence for the future of Canada’s athletics program. He was the first athlete in our nation’s history to officially hold a world record in international Track & Field competition.
Born in the Prairies and raised in North Vancouver, BC, Harry was part of a lineage of running excellence; his grandfather John Howard was Canada’s first black Olympic athlete in 1912 and Harry’s younger sister Valerie was an elite sprinter herself. In 1960, just a year out of high school, Jerome equaled the world record at an Olympic trial in Saskatoon, and qualified for the Rome Olympics that same year.
One of Canada’s few world-class athletes at the time, the weight of the nation was on his shoulders to dominate against the world’s best. However, a series of untimely leg injuries, a pulled hamstring in Rome and a ruptured quadricep at the Perth Commonwealth Games two years later, hampered Jerome’s chances of glory on the international stage. Unaware of the full extent of his injury, he was lambasted by Canadian media, antagonized and wrongfully labelled a “quitter”.
Motivated to return to form and silence his critics, Harry achieved the improbable when he stepped back on the track in 1964 after a long, intensive road to recovery. His Olympic redemption came at the Tokyo Games that year when he earned a bronze medal in the 100-metre final, cementing himself among the greatest runners of his era. Jerome added two international gold medals to his resume at the ‘66 Commonwealth Games and ‘67 Pan Am Games. Renowned university coach Bill Bowerman called it the greatest comeback in track and field history. He was the first man to ever hold the 100-metre and 100-yard world records simultaneously.
At the pinnacle of his running career, Harry was also a physical education teacher finding purpose beyond his own accolades on the track. After retiring from competition in 1969, he was appointed by the Prime Minister of Canada to lead several nationwide sports programs to promote amateur and youth athletics. Jerome also became an outspoken ambassador for social causes, fighting for better representation of visible minorities on Canadian television and advertising. Before his untimely passing at the age of 42, he was awarded the Order of Canada and named Athlete of the Century by the province of British Columbia. His athletic legacy is immortalized through the Harry Jerome International Track Classic held annually in Vancouver.
At a time when Canada’s international track & field program had yet to find its stride, Jamaican-born Angella Taylor emerged on the scene as a world-class running prodigy. One of the country’s most highly decorated sprinters in history, she ranked within the world’s top ten female short distance runners between 1979-1987, capturing medals and setting countless national records.
Already a promising young track star in Jamaica, at the age of 16 she immigrated to Toronto, Ontario and was off to the races from then on. In her senior year, Angella won the provincial high school championship for the 100-metre dash and became a member of the national team as a 19-year-old student. She went on to set two Canadian records for the 100m and 200m dash at the Pan American Games in 1979. At Toronto’s York University where she trained, Angella was known by teammates and other coaches for her unrivalled work ethic on the track.
Powerful off the blocks and notorious for her fierce competitive drive, she was poised to dominate on the world stage. That next year however, Team Canada had decided to collectively boycott the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Her breakout performance wasn’t until the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. She reached the podium four times through the 10-day competition, including her first gold medal in the 100-metre — smashing her own Canadian record with a time of 11 seconds flat. In the women’s 4x400m relay, Angella ran the anchor in a riveting photo finish victory beating Australia by a hair.
By that time, she had established herself as one of the world’s premier sprinters, helping to put the national team back in elite global contention. Team Canada had its resurgence at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984, taking home 10 medals in Track & Field events including the Silver won by her team in the women’s 4x100 relay. Although she faltered in the 100m final, her reign continued. After giving birth to her first child in 1985, she captured gold once again in the 200m dash at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
Angella Taylor-Issajenko amassed a long list of national athletic honours throughout her career and her legacy on the track remains in the record books. She is a two-time recipient of the Velma Springstead Trophy for Female Athlete of the Year and was made a member of the Order of Canada for her excellence in the sport. Angella blazed a trail for Canadian athletes beyond the era she raced in, while representing women in sport and people of colour at an international level.
Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins
A product of Chatham, Ontario, Ferguson Arthur Jenkins Jr. is certainly the best Canadian-born pitcher the world has ever witnessed, let alone one of the greatest major league baseball players of the 20th century. His 19-year career boasts 3,192 strikeouts, an impressive seven 20-win seasons, multiple all-star appearances, as well as the coveted Cy Young Award in 1971 for the most valuable pitcher in the National League.
Tracing back to his small town roots, Jenkins’s mother was a descendant of African-American slaves who travelled the Underground Railroad into Canada in the mid-1800s. His father, a semi-pro baseball player, never made it to the major leagues due to racial segregation and color barriers that were prevalent at the time. A generation later, as a young man playing in the US minor leagues, Fergie experienced firsthand the racial divide in America right before the civil rights movement was beginning to take shape.
After a back-up stint with the Phillies in the early 60s, Fergie came into his own when he took the starting pitcher role with the storied Chicago Cubs franchise. From 1967 to 1972, he accomplished the improbable with six consecutive 20-win seasons, while topping all Major League pitchers in total wins and strikeouts in that stretch. That incredible run culminated in a stellar 1971 season, in which he claimed the NL's Cy Young trophy for most outstanding pitcher — the first Cub in history to ever do so.
As the golden arm of the Cubs, Fergie had a full arsenal of pitches including his signature fastball. His pinpoint accuracy and ability to change speeds casted him among the major league elite. An all-around sportsman, there was no offseason for Fergie even at the height of his career. He moonlighted as a ringer for the world famous Harlem Globetrotters in ‘67, touring for three years through 180+ basketball games.
In the 2nd act of his career, when dealt to the Texas Rangers in 1974, Jenkins proved that he wasn’t past his prime just yet. That season he notched a franchise-record 25 victories and was voted the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year. A bonafide stat machine, Fergie went on to capture yet another record as only the fourth pitcher in history to win more than 100 games in both leagues.
By the time he hung up his glove in ‘83, he had joined the hallowed 3,000 career strikeout club, and still sits in the MLB’s top 12 for most strikeouts all-time. Even rarer, he achieved that feat while allowing less than 1,000 walks — a status held by only five pitchers in 150+ years. Less than a decade later, his legendary career was cemented in Cooperstown, when he became the first Canadian in history to be enshrined into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Off the mound, Jenkins continues to lead a charitable foundation dedicated to serving humanitarian needs through the love of sport, while committed to the preservation of Black Heritage throughout Canada and the United States.
Regarded by many as the very first superstar of modern women’s hockey, Angela James, was a pioneering force on and off the ice. She dominated the game from an early age and is widely credited for helping push women’s hockey into the mainstream, internationally. More than a decade after her remarkable career, in 2010 she became the first Canadian woman, the first publicly gay player (across all major sports), and the second black athlete to ever be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Angela’s introduction to the game of hockey began in the early 70s, growing up in Flemingdon Park, a subsidized housing project on the outskirts of Toronto. Playing street hockey with the boys in her neighbourhood, she instantly grew passionate about the game of stick and ball. But when her mother enrolled her in a municipal youth boys’ league at the age of 8, she was discriminated against for being a girl playing a primarily “boy sport”. Despite the criticism, Angela’s skills were so tremendous that she quickly advanced to the peewee division playing with boys four years her senior. She continued to excel — so much so that after one year, a group of disgruntled parents and coaches implemented a new policy that banned James and all girls from playing in the boys’ league from then on, forcing her to travel out of town to play in an all girls’ organization in a neighbouring district. At 13, she played on a senior team with young women 16 years and older. Even in her youth, it was clear that she was ahead of her time.
When she reached post-secondary, James was already an outstanding athlete blossoming into an even more complete hockey player, despite being re-positioned by her coach as a defenceman. In three seasons at Seneca College in Toronto, she led the women’s league in scoring for three consecutive years, nabbed the equivalent in MVP honours, while spearheading the team to several national titles. A defining moment came in her last collegiate campaign when she netted an unprecedented 50 goals and 73-point total in only a short 14-game run. She was dubbed “the Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey” by Canadian media, as her star shone even brighter in the years following.
Reserved and soft spoken off the ice, inside the glass walls Angela had an old school style of play — hard-nosed, tenacious, yet flawlessly sound in her approach to the game. She was a pure goal scorer with incredible physicality, styling herself after the likes of a Mark Messier in the NHL. Opponents often admitted that roughing it with James was like “hitting steel” — she was a solid force that couldn’t be moved at will.
She dominated everywhere she played. At the international level, she was selected for Team Canada in the IIHF World Championships from 1987 to 1997, winning a remarkable four World Golds and four Pacific Rim Championships as the lead goal-getter throughout. Nothing seemed to get in her way until the 1998 Nagano Olympics — it was the first time women’s hockey would be recognized as an Olympic sport. But in a controversial decision by the coaching staff, she was excluded from the roster due to a series of unfounded allegations and gender-related prejudices. Her Olympic hopes came crashing down, much to the disbelief of her fellow teammates, fans, and family back home; it was like cutting Gretzky from the national squad.
Redemption came the following year, when she was reinstated to the national team. Lo and behold, that season at the 3 Nations Cup, James scored the winning goal in a championship shootout against their United States rivals, once again leading Canada to victory.
She was a quiet revolutionary in the sport. A natural leader by example, even as a young girl mixing it up with the boys. She became one of the most decorated players in all of hockey history. Rarely afforded the spotlight, yet brought global attention to the women’s game when little were interested in female sports. She persevered throughout her 20+ year career, breaking records while breaking down antiquated notions about how women played the game — paving the way for young players, regardless of ethnicity or gender, to lace up their skates and follow in her footsteps.