When you live on this Island you quickly become aware of how being born on this small Island is soooo important for a certain mindset. Not all people are like that but a sizable portion are and make a point when speaking of anyone to let you know that they are Islanders or your not. The media is the same, CBC would like you to believe that everyone they hire in PEI is from the Island or is married to an Islander. God Forbid they would ever get those people from away without a physical connection to this place. It is all a big game and it is quite tiresome.
Our Statutory Holiday in February is called Islander day, elsewhere in Canada it is called Family Day. Being inclusive and having real diversity is not a value in PEI, though it is talked about a lot by politicians it is not really a reality in how society works here.
Tourism PEI brochures show wholesome white folks, Dad and Mom with the 2 kids and a pet, usually a labrador, friendly white folk. In many ways the tourism publicity in PEI is stuck in the 1950’s. Apparently the only tourist we get are white with perfect teeth, simple observation on the street will show you something quite different, mostly over 50 and increasingly Asian.
Our Island heroine is a fictitious little orphan from Nova Scotia who came to PEI as indentured servant and apparently had a wonderful life that is if you don’t read the other 7 books.
You never hear about other people, the non-white. They do not figure, if you take a guided tour you will hear a lot about Fathers of Confederation and when they came to Charlottetown in the Summer of 1864 it coincided with the Circus being in town for the first time in 20 years. It is all pretty innocuous and will not frighten the good folks. The tour guides will not tell you that the Island until very recently was divided along sectarian lines, Catholics and Protestants. There was one hospital for Catholics and one for Protestants, one Catholic ambulance service and another for Protestants. Same with homes for Seniors, Funeral Parlours, schools and every other institution, PEI was a deeply segregated society.
Recently things have started to change, modestly mind you, but change nonetheless. This piece of information has surfaced, however it has not made its way into official history yet and what we know comes from Nova Scotia, the Province next door.
The first Black heavyweight boxing champions in the United States was an Islander.
George Godfrey was born in Charlottetown, PEI in 1852 and grew up in the largely Black neighbourhood known as The Bog, on Pownal Street where today the Office of the Premier of the Province and other government offices are located. He emigrated to Boston in 1870, but only began his professional boxing career in 1879.
Godfrey defeated fighter after fighter – both white and Black – and by 1883 had eliminated all challengers to the title of American Black heavyweight champion. In addition to tough opponents, Godfrey also faced racism – according to historian Nat Fleischer, the white heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan refused to fight him.
Despite these challenges, Godfrey had a long and storied career. He hung up his laces in 1895 and opened his own boxing school in Boston. George Godfrey is not a household name in PEI never was, he was poor and black, but he should be recognized – PEI has a poor history of acknowledging those who are not White and Christian. Prejudice and bigotry is alive to this day on the Island. Until just 5 years ago there was NO mention of Charlottetown having a black population, in historical archives or even on tours of the city no mention is ever made of this population who lived in the centre of the city across from the Mansion of the Lieutenant Governor.
Image of George Godfrey provided courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives