Honouring the unknown heroines of Halifax’s Black community

By Steve Gow

Retired history professor Judith Fingard is setting her sights on enlightening Haligonians to a pair of the province’s lesser-known figures in history.

“We get very focused on one heroine,” says the former president of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society (RNSHS). “First, it was Portia White and more recently, it has been Viola Desmond and they are very important — don’t get me wrong —  but there were others.”

As such, Fingard has researched and put together a free webinar through the RNSHS about a couple of those “others” entitled Two Girls Named Blanche: Race, Gender and Education in Turn of the 20th Century Halifax.

A profile about a mother-daughter team that each accomplished significant achievements in their own right, Fingard came up with the concept of the Dec. 8 lecture after the respective Blanches’ stories came to the forefront while digging up research on a paper charting the rise of the Black middle class in Halifax in late 19th century.

“I decided that a couple of the (stories) could fairly and readily be turned into appropriate, documentable talks for the historical society and this is one,” notes Fingard, adding the stories of Blanche Russell and her daughter Blanche Roache touch on some of the notable “firsts” that were made by members of Halifax’s Black community.

“The elder one I knew about from a long time ago because she was the first female to be admitted into the general high school in Halifax — the Halifax Academy,” says Fingard, explaining that her admittance did not come without its share of controversy.

“That was noted in a very short-lived publication during the First World War which was designed and issued by members of the Black community in Halifax (called) the Atlantic Advocate.”

However, Fingard’s research uncovered that Blanche Russell’s daughter would also go on to become identified as the “the first coloured young lady to enter the Conservatory of Music.”

While Fingard admits that sourcing information about Blanche Roache would prove somewhat challenging, she did find out certain details about the first female graduate from the Halifax Conservatory of Music following approximately seven years of study.

“It was quite clear she was not able to get a job in Halifax because I think she would have stayed in Halifax if she could have,” says Fingard, noting Roache travelled to North Carolina to take teacher training briefly before returning to Nova Scotia. “There she encountered, I am assuming, a great deal of segregation and hostility because the southern United States was obviously worse than even Halifax so she came back and eventually married.”

Fingard hopes her lecture highlights the obstacles and challenges that young Halifax women encountered in their ambition to improve their lives in the late 19th century. 

She notes that the example of the Two Blanches represents the institutional segregation and racism Black communities were met with — even as middle-class families found success in other aspects of their lives.

“This is an important period in Black history,” says Fingard of the turn of the 20th century in Halifax. “Most of the people, as parents of these children, had quite well-defined ambitions for their children and they tend to be mainly self-employed people who are able to own their own houses and afford to do a certain amount for their children.”

While the stories of Blanche Russell and Blanche Roache are far less recognized than that of the city’s storied civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond, Fingard hopes that those who participate in the lecture will learn to appreciate the achievements and importance of some of Halifax’s other so-called ordinary heroes.

“They are all exceptional women,” says Fingard about community members like the Two Blanches. “I think that we need to know more about different groups of people in the city and the contributions they’ve made and their heroism.”

For more information on the RNSHS’s Two Girls Named Blanche webinar, visit the website.

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