As a Black woman from B.C.’s past is honoured, some say it’s not enough

A prominent figure in British Columbia’s Black history will have a street named in her honour in Vancouver–the first ever named after a Black woman in the city’s history.

Vancouver City Council made the announcement Wednesday,

“Nora Hendrix Way” will be part of the new St. Paul’s Hospital precinct, where a number of new streets are being built and near where the Black neighbourhood of Hogan’s Alley once thrived.

It’s meant to honour Nora Hendrix, who moved from Seattle to Vancouver in 1913 with her husband, Ross, after their vaudeville troupe closed down.

The remaining portion of Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver on pictured on Jan. 27. Most of the historic Black neighbourhood was demolished to make way for the construction of viaducts in the early 1970s. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

The CBC’s Justin McElroy reports that Hendrix, the grandmother of legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, co-founded the Fountain Chapel — the city’s first Black church — and was a cook at Vie’s Chicken and House, both key parts of the city’s Hogan’s Alley community that was eventually displaced through development and construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts

“We wanted to recommend a name that was relevant to the neighbourhood,” said John Atkin, co-chair of the city’s Civic Asset Naming Committee committee. 

“Having the street pretty much point at the chapel … Nora Hendrix Way will be, I think, a really good honour.”

As it turns out, that appears to be a matter of opinion.

At least one community activist believes a one-block street fails to do justice to Hendrix’s memory.  

“I’m trying to find something positive to say here,” June Francis, co-chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society, one of the largest Black advocacy groups in the city told McElroy.

Francis, who is an associate professor at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business,said the city didn’t consult with her organization and she fears the naming of a one-block street for Hendrix “boxes us in” for greater recognition for Hendrix.

June Francis, co-chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society board of directors, is unhappy about the lack of consultion between the Vancouver and Black organizations in finding the proper way to honour Nora Hendrix. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As well, Francis said she was concerned that the city will stop actively engaging with the Black community after the work of a street name is done. 

“They want to get a big, symbolic pat on the back for Black History Month,” she said.

“And they’ve done it in a way to give themselves credit without truly making fundamental and substantive changes. And we’ve said to them symbolism is not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for real change.”

Francis told McElroy that the city council should only approve the change if there’s a full commitment to work with the Black community in the area going forward — and she doesn’t believe that bar has been met.   

“If the city is intending to redress the displacement of the Black community, they cannot possibly redress it by ignoring and erasing us again.”

Vancouver had previously named a laneway named for Rosemary Brown, the first Black woman to be elected to a provincial legislature.

However, McElroy reports, laneways have no addresses and aren’t entered into most databases, including official ones for streets listed by the city. 

With files from CBC News (Justin McElroy),

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