Restoring the legacy of a 'trailblazing' Black Saint John writer

·6 min read

Steep streets, tall spires etched against the sky, Grey wharves that know the way of wind and tide, Dim, drifting fog, the sea-gull's plaintive cry, A city, old and assured, wearing the pride Of epic memories and heritage ….

Few poems have so perfectly captured the grit and dignity of Canada's oldest incorporated city.

These lines, titled Saint John, N.B. become even more remarkable when you learn the author was a Black woman born in 1887.

Anna Minerva Henderson, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a barber, grew up to be an award-winning civil servant and literary pioneer. Black literary critic and Governor General's Award-winning author George Elliott Clarke describes her as "the first Black woman in English in Canada to dare to publish a chapbook of verse."

The book, Citadel, is a love letter to Saint John, with poems about King's Square, the Loyalist Burial Grounds, and Market Slip.

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

"She was a proud Maritimer, as well as being a proud Black woman," said Clarke.

Anna Minerva Henderson rose above the racism she faced to carved out a position for herself as an educated, successful woman.

But her name has been all but forgotten. Until now.

Raised by single mother

When Henderson was young, many Black New Brunswickers "would have been illiterate — kept oppressed to serve as cheap labour for the larger white communities," said Clarke.

While some Black people did receive an education, it often "wasn't something that was talked about," says Jennifer Dow, a genealogist and family historian based in Oromocto.

Henderson's mother, Henrietta Leake, was a schoolteacher from Kingsclear, who graduated from the Provincial Normal School and taught in Saint John's north end.

New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick. Accession number: X11692
New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick. Accession number: X11692

Her father was an African American soldier with the 31rst Maine Infantry, who fought in the Civil War for the Union forces before coming north. He found work as a barber, earning the nickname "Professor" among his clients.

He "passed away tragically in an accident in 1893. So her mother was left to raise three girls by herself," Dow said.

Education was paramount in the Henderson home, Clarke said. Anna's sister, Mabel, was known for her exquisite needlework which brought home prizes at Canadian exhibitions.

Their parents "understood and realized that education was absolutely essential to allow their daughters to succeed and make their way in the world."

Anna Minerva was the only person of colour in Saint John High School's graduating class of 1905.

Submitted by Saint John High School
Submitted by Saint John High School

She earned her teacher's certificate — but was barred because of her race from teaching in either Saint John or Halifax.

After two years teaching in Black communities in Nova Scotia, she wrote the civil service examination. She passed with "the third-highest mark for the entire Dominion of Canada in 1912," Clarke said.

She went on to work in Ottawa for the Department of Mines and Forests, as a senior clerk stenographer, and was promoted to principal clerk in 1925. She also wrote a regular feature for the Ottawa Citizen called The Colymn.

In 1945, she returned to Saint John and worked as a stenographer for local law firm Fairweather & Stevenson.

Impressions of Saint John

In 1967, at age 80, Henderson self-published her book, Citadel. Many of the poems in that collection are about her hometown.

Saint John, N.B. opens with the city's Latin motto, which translates as, "O Fortunate Ones Whose Walls Are Now Rising."

"She's celebrating the rise of the city," said Clarke, "but also: who in fact was digging those foundations? Who was doing the heavy lifting and labour of laying down the streets and actually building the walls if not Black slaves?"

In "The Old Burying Ground" Henderson describes the "tall trees [that] spread out protecting arms" and "old men on benches [who] talk the hours away."

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

The Loyalist Burial Ground may have been a place where Henderson felt close to her roots, Clarke said.

"Along with the white Loyalists interred there, there might also be Black Loyalists and Black slaves, although it's very likely that they would have been placed in unmarked plots, or perhaps buried beside their former masters like pets, for crying out loud."

Another poem, Market Slip, imagines the port of Saint John as a gateway for "dreamers and builders … who build a future of a broader vision."

"She would have remembered, as a girl in Saint John, that the port was thriving. There were ships coming to Saint John from all over the world and all over the British Empire," Clarke said.

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

While discussion of race isn't explicit in Henderson's poems, there are moments when she seems to reference her experiences as a Black woman. One poem, This Life, reads in part:

I who have walked alone With hate and fear, and quelled them in my hour With steadfast level gaze, now claim my own: Mine is the glory, ay, and mine the power!

The message Henderson was trying to send, Clarke said, is clear.

"She is saying: I am here, I am the pioneer, I am leading the way. Even if she couldn't know for sure who was going to hear her," Clarke said.

"She was a Black writer who is marginalized, on the margins of the country, but is still demanding to have an audience.

To be read. To be heard."

Submited by the Saint John Free Public Library
Submited by the Saint John Free Public Library

Lifelong student

Over her long life, Henderson never stopped writing.

In 1974, at 86, she enrolled in a creative writing course at the University of New Brunswick, telling the Telegraph-Journal that she "did not care a pin" about the age difference between herself and the other students.

She planned a second edition of her book with new poems, but it doesn't appear the work was ever published. Today, Citadel is out of print but is available via the New Brunswick Public Library system.

On July 21, 1987, at just a month shy of 100 years old, she was buried in Fernhill Cemetery alongside her sister and parents.

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

Despite Henderson's accomplishments, "her legacy is non-existent as far as the general public is concerned," said Saint John historian Peter Little.

"There's just a handful of people who know about her."

Researchers like Jennifer Dow are hoping to change that.

It's important for Black creators, artists, and writers working today in New Brunswick to "see those who have come before them, and the excellence that has existed for centuries in New Brunswick," Dow said.

Dow is working with the recently-formed New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance to showcase people like Henderson, and other pioneering Black New Brunswickers in the arts.

"We've refused to believe that Black Canadians are important citizens, or ever did anything really important that we must remember. So it's easy for future generations to come along and erase the contributions of people like Henderson," said Clarke.

"She deserves to be on the postage stamps. There should be writing competitions in her name to encourage others — because there is still a struggle for equality, for women and for Black and Indigenous people.

"She takes her place as a trailblazer for us all."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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CBC