Lincoln Alexander died in October, 90 years old and just three months short of his 91st birthday. His long life saw him through careers as a WWII pilot, lawyer, MP and Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. The few constants in his varied life were his focus on education and anti-discrimination, both of which were central to his term as Lieutenant Governor. It’s always a collective loss when great Canadians pass away, and the first Black History Month since Alexander’s death gives us an opportunity to reflect on the man we’ve lost.
The man who would go on to be the first black representative of the monarchy in Canada had humble roots, as he explains in his autobiography Go To School, You’re a Little Black Boy. (The title comes from a saying of his mother’s, who Alexander credits for his lifelong belief in education as the most important pathway to success.) For such a public figure, the book is a surprisingly personal memoir, detailing his early life, war service, and struggles to succeed, but also giving a heartfelt look at painful chapters in his life like the dissolution of his family, and his late wife Yvonne’s long battle with Alzheimer’s.
Among the many historical photographs Alexander shares in the book is a picture of him in Grade 2 at Toronto’s Earl Grey PS. Cheekily, he points himself out to readers (”third in the row on the right”). Not that he’s hard to find, as the only person of colour in the class. It says a lot for social progress that at the end of his life Lincoln Alexander, a pioneer in African-Canadian public life, no longer stood out for the colour of his skin but rather for the number and magnitude of his accomplishments. The principles of equality and social justice we take for granted were won in political battles with people like Alexander on the vanguard. This February we pause to reflect on the paths and people that have led Canadian society forward, and consider where we can go from here.