Life in the Year Books: Historical Records After the Underground Railroad

The annual Black History Month blog series will look at the narratives and historical records of the Black community after the end of the Underground Railroad and through the 20th century.

Part 4 of a 6-part series.

The high school yearbook is an unassuming, yet incredibly valuable source of historical insight. Yearbooks offer us a unique insight into the perspectives and experiences of youth at a particular moment in time. Created by youth and for youth, yearbooks offer a curated glimpse into the lives of high school students, from clubs and sports teams to homecomings and talent shows. Pages are filled with inside jokes, quips, and bits of gossip. Furthermore, students and principals would often publish editorials commenting on the political and societal climate of the time – urging students to act or reflect in some way or another. While the Yearbook Flip blog series delves deeper into the nuances of what we can learn from high school yearbooks, for the purposes of our Black History Month blog series, we are interested in what yearbooks can tell us about the Black experience in the early 20th century.

As a source, high school yearbooks certainly bring light to the achievements of Black students through the decades of the 20th century, but beyond this, they also offer unique insight into how these students navigated such a formative period of their lives. Though the Black student population in St. Catharines’ high school was small through most of the 20th century, students of colour made considerable impact in their school communities, from their academic successes to contributing their talents to clubs and sports teams. Black experiences, visible on the pages of local yearbooks, shows us all aspects of student life: friendship, school spirit, team participation, and aspirations.

The St. Catharines Museum cares for over 200 yearbooks, spanning between 1913 and 2016 and representing almost all of St. Catharines’ secondary schools. Most of the yearbooks in the Museum Collection were published from the 1970s onward, which local readers of a certain age may be relieved to hear, is too close to the present day for this blog series to consider. And, since yearbooks published prior to the 1950s are more text-based than photo-based this post in our series will focus on yearbooks from 1950 to 1972.

This timespan also marks about one century from the peak of the Underground Railroad era, inviting us to consider the aspirations held by Freedom Seekers then compared to those of St. Catharines’ Black youth 100 years later. In fact, many Black students in these yearbooks carry surnames that can be traced back to Freedom Seekers settling in St. Catharines in the mid-1800s, a reminder of the rippling legacy of the Underground Railroad in shaping our community.

Throughout the interviews conducted by Benjamin Drew in 1856 and Samuel Gridley Howe in 1863, education was identified by Freedom Seekers as the most important service they wanted to guarantee for their children. Understanding the importance of education in the eyes of Freedom Seekers makes the aspirations and achievements of Black students in the 20th century more meaningful.

Student Success

Flipping through the pages of local high school yearbooks, it becomes apparent very quickly how small the Black population was in St. Catharines high schools in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. In most years, a high school would have only a few students of colour appear across the pages of their class photos, and often they were related, or at least shared the same surname. This provides some insight into how the Black community more broadly fit into the wider demographics of St. Catharines during this time. Despite their small numbers, according to their yearbooks, Black students excelled in academics, sports, and other extracurricular activities.

People of colour made up only a small percentage of the student population in St. Catharines high schools in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Here is a typical page in the Laura Secord Secondary School yearbook in 1971. STCM 2017.21.1

Some students of colour, like Delva Dorsey of St. Catharines Collegiate, appeared frequently in their yearbooks. In the 1951 Vox Collegiensis yearbook, Delva graduated the Grade 13 academic program with hopes of enrolling in “the Occupational and Physio-Therapy Course” at the University of Toronto.

Delva Dorsey’s headshot alongside fellow Grade 13 graduates at St. Catharines Collegiate, 1950/1951. STCM 2010.3.1

Beyond her professional aspirations, Delva was also an active member of the Public Speaking and Debate Society during the 1950/1951 school year, where she participated in a formal debate broadcast over CKTB radio station. Delva was also involved in the Inter-School Christian Fellowship, which engaged in “the study and discussion of God’s Word” through socials, music, and guest-speakers, as well as the Girls’ Athletic Association.

Members of Collegiate’s Public Speaking and Debating Society, including Delva Dorsey (first row, second from right). STCM 2010.3.1

A similar story can be told at Denis Morris in their 1963 Analecta yearbook. Grade 11 student H. Miller (the yearbook did not seem to publish students’ first names) also stood out as one of only a few students of colour in her high school, yet her visibility in the book can be attributed to her involvement in student life. H. Miller was actively involved in the school band, known as The Majestics, where she marched with the Colour Guard. Miller also participated in intramural athletics, playing with the softball team, and competing at senior track and field, and she appears to have one First and Third place in two of the competitions.

The 1963 Denis Morris yearbook dedicated a full-page spread to The Majestics band, of which H. Miller was an active member. STCM 2016.16.5.
H. Miller pictured in both the Senior Track and Field, and Softball intramural teams, Denis Morris 1963. STCM 2016.16.5.

Other Black student athletes to appear in their high school yearbooks include Ross Nicholson of Sir Winston Churchill’s inaugural Junior Basketball Team in 1959/1960 and Adelaide “Addie” Holmes of St. Catharines Collegiate’s Midget Basketball Team in 1970/1971. The team went on to win first place the City’s Girls Midget Basketball Tournament.

Grade 10 student Ross Nicholson (back row, second from the left) is pictured with fellow Junior Basketball team members in the 1959/1960 Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School yearbook. STCM 2016.16.1
An action shot of Ross Nicholson (right, third image from the top) is included in a collage of other memorable sport moments of the year. STCM 2016.16.1

Also of note in the 1970/1971 St. Catharines Collegiate yearbook was the third annual Miss Collegiate Beauty Pageant, where student of colour Delma “Dee Dee” Dorsey tied for “second-place runner-up.”

The beauty pageant spread in the 1970/1971 St. Catharines Collegiate yearbook, where student of colour “Dee Dee” Dorsey was noted to tie for “second-place runner-up.” STCM 2016.24.7

Highlighting the many ways students of colour participated in the culture and life of their high schools helps shape our understanding of how Black students might have experienced their teenage years, pursued goals, and explored new passions.

Student Aspirations

High school yearbooks are also valuable sources for the different ways students’ personalities come through on their pages. Of course, the photos and student quotes selected for yearbooks are highly curated, but they still offer a glimpse into students’ interests, friendships, values, and aspirations. It has long been common practice for high school yearbooks to reserve its front pages to feature the headshots of graduating students along with a personal quote. These quotes were a chance for students to shape how their peers remembered them in the years to come, and also to stake a claim on what they hoped their future might look like.

Below are the words from a few graduating Black students in St. Catharines’ high yearbooks in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s:

June Bell graduated from the Grade 12 Commercial program at St. Catharines Collegiate in 1951, the same year as University of Toronto hopeful Delva Dorsey. STCM 2010.3.1
Larry Harper graduated from St. Catharines Collegiate in 1966. It seems that high school helped Larry cultivate his interest in auto mechanics. STCM 2017.7.4
Football was an important part of Mike Nicholson’s experience at St. Catharines Collegiate, unlike geography class! Mike is pictured here in the 1966 Vox Collegiensis yearbook. STCM 2017.7.4 
Egbert Balthazar (front row, second from right) is pictured amongst his fellow graduates from Grantham High School in 1972. While Egbert enjoyed his time in the Geography Club at school, his real passion was in aviation, which he pursued at Seneca College. STCM 1997.102.19

Yearbooks offer a unique insight into how students of colour navigated the hallways and intricate culture of high school. Though highly curated, we can glimpse how Black students engaged with the opportunities available in their schools, as well as the opportunities they aspired to pursue in the future. Considering the educational opportunities available to the children of Freedom Seekers in the 1850s, the 20th century students who appear on the pages of these yearbooks had achieved the dreams of their ancestors who wished for education and opportunity for their children and future generations.

Coming up on Wednesday, February 22: the blog series looks at yearbooks from High Schools in the city.

Follow along this Black History Month. Subscribe and share our posts to help share more of these important narratives.

The 2023 Black History Month Blog Series is written by Sara Nixon, Adrian Petry, and Kathleen Powell.

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