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Terminal City Confidential: Tales from the alleyway of Vancouver’s black history

By Susanne Tabata
Vancouver filmmaker Anthony Brown. Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Brown

Vancouver filmmaker Anthony Brown.
Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Brown

VANCOUVER — It’s Black History Month and the perfect occasion to trash official narratives of the city in favour of first-hand stories. Like the Chinese and Japanese, the first black residents in Vancouver settled in the Downtown Eastside. And no, not everyone is related to Jimi Hendrix nor is everyone a musician.

HOGAN’S ALLEY

Anthony Brown was born in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and lived on East Georgia Street in the early 1960s near Hogan’s Alley – an alley strip from Jackson to Main that ran between Union and Prior. “I was entrenched in the black community as a kid. My parents were married at the black church on Jackson Street. My father Reginald (Sonny) Brown was the first secretary of the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People or BCAACP. Frank Collins was the president. We lived on East Georgia near Hogan’s Alley.” While no one can prove the alley Park Lane was called Hogan’s Alley because of an old Scotsman drunkard who regularly found himself in the area, it’s probably close to the truth.

NORA HENDRIX AND MEETING JIMI

Nora Hendrix, grandmother of Jimi Hendrix. Photo: Courtesy of Henri Brown

Nora Hendrix, grandmother of Jimi Hendrix.
Photo: Courtesy of Henri Brown

“In the beginning, Hogan’s Alley was an area where the black community used to congregate for the simple reason that a lot of black men were porters in the day. As a kid I remember a lot of porters came to our house for dinner when we lived on East Georgia. I recall Willie Fleming was big football star. He came to Vancouver and stayed. People came from everywhere. They lived in the alley because it was close to the train station. Then there were chicken houses and jazz joints. There was Vy’s Chicken & Steaks, juke joints, a bit of a criminal element. People came down here and partied it up. I remember meeting Jimi Hendrix with my grandmother Florence Payne who lived on Prior, near Jackson Street. She and Jimi’s grandmother Nora were good friends. Nora used to smoke cigars. I was only six years old and Jimi used to come up to Canada to visit when he was in the Navy. The thing about Jimi was that he was a Seattle boy. It was his grandmother Nora who was the leader in the Black Community here. She was a spokesperson who spoke out about injustices.”

BLACK OUTSIDE THE CITY

As time when on, the politicians put in the Georgia viaduct in 1970. Like everything in this city, the wrecking ball paved the way for something new. Brown doesn’t blame the city. “By then the blacks had moved out. The community had broken up. My family moved to Texada Island where my dad found work. “ Brown grew up with the typical ‘60s – ‘70s Canadian brand of outsider-ness, “I never grew up in the polarizing culture like the States. Sure I got called the N-word all the time but it wasn’t like the States. It was more relaxed here. I’d get invited to the stag but never the wedding. “ As for a career, “options for black men at the time were the military, service industry, or jail. Music or sports only if you had the talent.” Brown would find himself on a football and baseball scholarship to Montana University after he graduated from high school where he pursued a degree and began the next chapter of his life.

MORE HENDRIX CLAN

Above: Henri Brown and Buddy Guy during the Experience Hendrix tour. Below: Wynton Marsalis and Pearl Brown on album cover Goin' Down Home.

Above: Henri Brown and Buddy Guy during the Experience Hendrix tour.
Below: Wynton Marsalis and Pearl Brown on album cover Goin’ Down Home.

Coming back to Hendrix, Jimi’s first cousin is entertainer Henri Brown, (no relation to Anthony). Speaking from Bangkok, Thailand, “I go out every year performing and celebrating the music and legacy of Jimi Hendrix for Experience Hendrix. Jimi was my first cousin.” He is referencing the huge U.S. tours authorized by Jimi’s sister Janie Hendrix. For Henri, he’d like to see more history of black music covered: “There is so much in the black history in the city no one knows about. I just wish it didn’t have to be one month out of the year that we look at it. My mother is the late Pearl Brown. She is the auntie of Jimi Hendrix. She even took care of Jimi for a time and a season. My mom spent many years as an actor, performing plays for Theater Under The Stars. At age 60, she lost her eyesight and started a singing career. From age 63 to 73 I produced two amazing CDs, one with her & Wynton Marsalis. Pearl is also the sister of Eleanor Collins, the first black woman in North America to have her own music variety show on CBC in 1955 & a part of B.C. Music Hall of Fame.” He has a point. Do you know these people: Eleanor Collins. Kentish Steele. Pearl Brown. Jason Hoover. Thelma Gibson. Carl Graves. Sybil Thrasher. Donny Girard. Lavina Fox. Bobby Taylor. Lovey Eli. Linton Garner. Jimmy Johnston. Leon Bibb and the list goes on.

GO DO SOME GREAT THINGS

For Anthony Brown, he’s a longshoreman in the ILWU Local 500 and has been devoted to researching his history. His 1994 documentary Go Do Some Great Things is a look at the history of the first black immigrants that came to B.C. before the U.S. Civil War, eventually coming to Vancouver. “The war was brewing. In 1858 they first came to Vancouver Island and landed in Victoria on a steamship named the Commodore. By around 1900, blacks were moving to Vancouver. One story is that there was a black guy who killed a police chief. This black guy was living with a white woman. He was a little intoxicated. The landlord got the police to come to the scene. There was gunfire both ways. One of the bullets hit the eight-year-old son of the woman and killed him. The police chief stormed in and was shot and killed by the black guy, who later turned a gun on himself. If you go to Jackson and Georgia, there is a memorial to the slain police chief. There are many stories.” Brown doesn’t whitewash his stories. “I like history, not just black history. It has a way of shaping who we are and we have to be open to it.”

Brown is currently working on a book The Outsider, based on his experience as a Canadian black athlete in an American university system. His film Go Do Some Great Things can be found at www.brownieworldproductions.com or at the Vancouver Public Library. Concludes Brown, “I’m a very proud seventh-generation Canadian. There aren’t many of us left.”

Susanne Tabata is the creator of the Vancouver punk doc Bloodied But Unbowed, FuelTV’s skateboarding film, Skategirl, and the West Coast surfing history doc 49Degrees. Thanks to Carolyn Soltau.

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