This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner, June 12, 2017.
“Maybe we need to look at an all-black school or other alternatives.”
It was April 2006 and Wade Smith, then the vice principal of St. Patrick’s High School in Halifax, was musing to former-student-become-CBC-journalist Maggie Rahr about a recently released report on the province’s progress — or lack thereof — in implementing the recommendations of a seminal 1994 report on the state of African Nova Scotian education.
Twelve years after that initial report, the African Nova Scotian Advisory Committee — citing “comparative dropout rates, school suspension rates, graduation rates, academic averages achieved [and] feelings of alienation” among black students and their parents — made it clear not much had changed, or been accomplished.
Rahr approached Smith — a high-achieving black man from Halifax’s north end who’d grown up to become one of the province’s most thoughtful and respected educators — for his reaction.
She was intrigued by his off-the-cuff comments about an all-black school and asked him what he meant. He cited other cultures — Jews, Greeks, Italians — that had been able to preserve and promote their culture and heritage by developing their own schools and learning institutions in Nova Scotia.
“They have economic independence, they care for their culture, they invest in it,” he said. “It enhances students as they go through life. It allows them to keep connected, but also go through the mainstream education system… It’s something that we need to be thinking about if we’re truly thinking about doing what’s best for our kids. I think you have to look at the possibility of a black school as something positive, that’s good for our culture and good for our people.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Smith’s seemingly common-sense response to a very real problem immediately created a local, national and even international media firestorm.
The idea was denounced out of hand by the province’s white cabinet minister in charge of African Nova Scotian issues. He claimed Smith was promoting “segregated schools.” Others suggested the idea — and perhaps Smith himself — was racist. An American white supremacist website even twisted Smith’s words into an argument for segregating black students out of mainstream schools entirely.
By the time I approached Smith to ask for an interview later that spring, he was understandably mic-shy. He’d had to go into classes at his school to explain to students — white and black — that he was the vice principal for all of them, not just for the blacks. And he noted what he considered a “very serious racial undertone” in what was still an ongoing public debate about what he’d said.
He politely declined my request for an interview.
That said, he hadn’t changed his mind. As he’d noted just a few weeks earlier in an interview with The Coast’s Carsten Knox: “For me to sit here and tell you why we need it is for you to explain to me why we don’t need it. We have kids dropping out at a high rate, kids are unsuccessful, they’re not doing well at school, they’re struggling. I don’t understand why I’d have to explain to you why the enhancement of culture in the educational setting would be good. It’s about improvement, growth, it’s about self-esteem, all the things I thought education was about, for me personally.”
Wade Smith died last week at 50, just a few months after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
The personal, tear-making tributes have not stopped yet.
From Kyla Derry, a former student who wrote in The Coast about “the day you made me bring my baby to school so I could write my African Heritage Literature exam for your class—and you watched her so I could. What other teacher would do what you did for a student trying to accomplish their goals?…” From Corey Wright, another former student who’d ended up in prison for manslaughter. Smith visited him — and other former students — in jail and helped them see their own potential. “I’m not saying like he’s the all Messiah and everything; he was just a man,” Wright told the CBC. “But he cared and sometimes that’s all it takes is for somebody to care when you’re in a dark place.”
Smith never gave up on the importance of education to help turn young lives — particularly young black lives — around. In November 2016, after three young men had been murdered in Halifax in just two weeks, Smith talked publicly about the need for a mentorship program that would encourage successful adults to come into the classroom, “to show students what they do for a living, and show them what parts of their lives they can look forward to as they get older. I think mentorship is paramount to any young man’s success,” he added. “I wouldn’t be here without that.”
Bringing that mentorship idea to reality would be one way to honour Smith’s memory.
A real Africentric school could be another — and even more significant.
Wade Smith’s brother, Craig, an RCMP officer and author, remembered those days in 2006 when his brother was “vilified” for daring to even suggest the idea of an all-black school. “He was somebody who taught in the system, who knew the in-depth pieces of the system and where it was failing… So it’s up to us, those of us that are left behind, to pick up that mantle and try to put some mechanisms in place to provide that support and carry on Wade’s legacy.”
Now that would be a fitting tribute.