A former track star nominated to be immortalized on a Canadian banknote wrote race-tinged commentaries on black athletes as “coloured gals” and “dusky sprinters”, and made derogatory reference to squaws and Indigenous peoples “yelping” from a wigwam. The Bank of Canada declined to say if it reviewed the writings of Bobbie Rosenfeld prior to her nomination.
Rosenfeld was a gold medalist at the 1928 Olympics. The Bank of Canada on November 24 included Rosenfeld on a shortlist of “iconic” women nominated for depiction on a 2018 banknote. The final selection will be announced December 8.
“This entire process encouraged a meaningful conversation among Canadians about the many exceptional women who have shaped our country,” Bank Governor Stephen Poloz said in a statement. The Governor said Rosenfeld and other shortlisted candidates were representative of women who “have broken barriers, made a significant change and left a lasting legacy.”
Rosenfeld was nominated by a Bank-appointed advisory council. The Bank said it relied on advisers to do their research. “The advisory council worked independently of the Bank in the development of the short list,” said Josianne Menard, spokesperson for the Bank. “This was done by design, to allow this independent group of experts and thought leaders to develop the short list.”
Rosenfeld wrote a regular Globe & Mail column called Feminine Sports Reel from 1936 to 1957. In one 1937 column she wrote: “Montreal was full of howls yesterday. The wahoo coming from the Indian’s tepee, charging robbery in broad daylight by rugby officials in Saturday’s Argo-Montreal grid set-to, was augmented by some yelping from the Women’s Federation wigwam.”
A 1950 column referred to “a lump-legged squaw who looks like me in a fright wig”. Rosenfeld in a 1949 article lamented the size of bonuses paid professional baseball players, writing: “Think of the coconuts they throw in the jungle for free.” A 1952 entry said Harlem Globetrotters manager Abe Saperstein “is on his way to deepest Africa to get him one of those 8-feet-5 basketball players for the Trotters.”
A review of Rosenfeld’s columns identified numerous references to black athletes as “dusky” and “coloured lads”. A 1938 article on Barbara Howard, the first black woman to represent Canada in international competition, called Howard a “dusky flash” and “dusky sprinter”.
“Barbara Howard, young coloured high school student and Vancouver’s contribution to the recent British Empire Games, casts her shadow across the wanderer’s track,” wrote Rosenfeld.
Howard, a silver medalist at the 1938 Empire Games in Australia, was later inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame. “She apparently was quite a novelty, appearing on the front page of every newspaper,” Rosenfeld wrote from the 1938 Games in Sydney. “They seldom see coloured athletes down here.”
“The Coloured Lads”
In a 1943 column Rosenfeld wrote, “Glancing back to the 1936 Olympic Games at Berlin, one remembers just how much the Negro track stars dominated the picture”; “Yes, the coloured lads have carried the United States a long way in track.”
Another 1943 article described a black female athlete as a “coloured gal”, adding: “While on the local scene dusky Jean Lowe of Laurels holds a combination of five Ontario track and field titles.”
The Feminine Sports Reel columns rarely delved into politics. Rosenfeld in a 1948 article lamented “deplorable” discrimination against black athletes – in the United States. “The forces of tolerance and fair play in sports are hard at work here,” she wrote. “They are swinging axes against the marble outlines of a tradition which has long filled the Southern United States scene with hallowed rubbish. These forces of tolerance are backing away at the agonizing problem against Negro athletes.”
However Rosenfeld in a 1955 Sports Reel column quoted with approval claims of racial distinctions in athletics by Canadian Sports Hall of Famer Lloyd Percival, author of The Hockey Handbook: “We have noticed, for example, that Negro athletes on the average mature earlier and drop off in skill and endurance sooner”; “Athletes of Latin derivation also mature sooner. Anglo Saxon-Celtic athletes, also Teutonic and Slavic, mature later and last longer”; “Occasionally you find an athlete of Anglo Saxon-Celtic origin maturing at an early age (Marilyn Bell for instance), but this is the exception and not the rule,” the column concluded.
Historian Dr. Margaret Conrad of the University of New Brunswick, a member of the advisory council that put Rosenfeld on the short list, said the council was aware of her writings. “The issue you raise was addressed,” Conrad said. “As you might expect, Rosenfeld was not the only woman on our list who held views now considered unacceptable.”
“Women are usually held to a higher moral standard than men, a cultural practice that I value in my own personal development as a human being,” said Conrad. “But in this instance, we opted for gender equity.”
Rosenfeld died in 1969. Canada Post in 1996 issued a stamp honouring Rosenfeld for her Olympic performance.
By Tom Korski