Dorothy Williams can trace her family history back through five generations, but as a girl she was told she had no history at all – by a history teacher.
For Williams, this hurtful episode was a formative experience that she has been pushing back against ever since. “I wanted to prove them wrong,” she says. “I wanted to show that there was a history, that we didn’t come from nothing.”
The “we” in that sentence refers to the Black community in Little Burgundy, where Williams was born and raised. Over the years, she has established herself as an expert in Black Canadian history, earning a PhD and publishing several books on the topic at a time when few others had written about it. In doing so, she has often drawn inspiration from the neighbourhood where she grew up.
“In telling the history of myself and telling the history of my community, I realized that Little Burgundy was the start of it all, and so it became important to tell where it began.”
Telling that story is something Williams does regularly as an educator and public speaker. She has also directly contributed to it, and continues to do so, playing an important role in bringing social change to Little Burgundy. Among other accomplishments, Williams has led a campaign to organize the opening of the Kamouraska and Jardin du Soleil housing cooperatives, and actively supported other campaigns to bring services like a legal clinic and medical services to the area. More recently, she has worked at the Black Community Resource Centre (BCRC) in Côte-des-Neiges and Desta Black Youth Network in Little Burgundy.
“I wanted to prove them wrong,” she says. “I wanted to show that there was a history, that we didn’t come from nothing.”
Today, Williams describes herself as “a known entity” in the community; a resource for people to reach out to. Community leaders tend to agree.
“Little Burgundy is very much stamped by the history that has been played out here, and [Williams] has been able to follow the trail and give us a real continuum of what has happened,” says Michael Farkas, Director of Youth in Motion and President of the Black History Month Round Table. “It’s a story that needed to be told and was not known by too many people. That’s a very rich contribution to Canadian history and the vitality of the neighbourhood.”
Lionel Toé, coordinator at BUMP, was mentored by Williams while working at BCRC. He sees her contribution as strengthening Little Burgundy as a neighbourhood. “She has helped people in the community learn about a history they didn’t know they had.”
In keeping with this tradition, Williams’ latest endeavour is running her own business, Blacbiblio.com, which creates products and resources to help teachers to teach Canadian Black history. Flipping through flashcards, posters and teacher’s guides in the sunny kitchen of her St-Henri home, it’s clear that the venture is a personally meaningful one for Williams, who describes it as the culmination of her life’s work. The motivation behind it is simple, she says: “So no kid has to hear another teacher say, ‘You have no history.’“