Black History Month: Valerie Jerome

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Most people have heard of Harry Jerome. His name adorns recreation centres and his statue is in Stanley Park. At one time he was the fastest man alive, setting a total of seven world records. In 1970 he was made an officer of the Order of Canada. Fewer people remember his sister Valerie, yet she is just as amazing.

The following is an excerpt from Sensational Vancouver’s Legendary Women chapter.

In November 2012 friends and former students of Valerie Jerome dedicated a bench in her honour
In November 2012 friends and former students of Valerie Jerome dedicated a bench in her honour

Valerie Jerome had just turned seven when she moved with her family from Winnipeg to North Vancouver. Along with her sister Carolyn, 10, and brothers Harry, 11 and Barton, 6, they moved in across the road from Ridgeway Elementary.

Valerie still vividly remembers her first day at that school.

“It seemed like every kid in the school was lined up with rocks,” she says. “I can still remember the feeling of the first rock that hit my back as we ran.”

Valerie Jerome
Lyon Place, North Vancouver

Valerie doesn’t like to think much about those days, but every February, for more than a decade, she drove across the bridge from Vancouver, returned to her old elementary school and talked to the kids about those early days for Black History month.

She started by pointing to the house on Lyons Place where they lived, and where in 1953, fire broke out during the middle of the night when the sawdust burner caught fire. Valerie was sent to ask a neighbour to call the fire department, not because she was the oldest—she wasn’t—but because she was the whitest.

The family were left out on the street while the neighbours watched from behind their curtains.

“Nobody came out to help us. My mother was pregnant with my youngest sister and we finally got a cab to the Salvation Army Hall on Lonsdale,” says Valerie. The family spent the night on chairs on the sidewalk.

In 1954 the Jeromes bought a small rancher on East 17th near their next school Sutherland Junior Secondary. Valerie worked in the school cafeteria at lunch time, rather than sit alone at a table or go home.

Valerie Jerome
704 East 17th Avenue, North Vancouver

The year she turned 15 everything changed. She set Canadian records at the 1959 Canadian Track and Field National Championships in her running events, broke her age group record for long jump, and helped her team win the relay. She won bronze at the Pan American games in Chicago, and the following year, she joined her brother Harry to represent Canada at the Summer Olympics in Rome.

The media of the day called them the “dusky brother and sister athletes.”

Harry and Valerie Jerome
Harry and Valerie Jerome at the airport. SFU Special Collections photo

“After I had been to the Olympics I was invited to eat with everybody,” she says. “We had a little bit of celebrity and somehow our brown skins turned white.”

The City of North Vancouver held a dance in their honour and gave them $500 each to spend.

 

Sport made everything bearable, she says.

“When the stopwatch gave you a great time, it didn’t matter what colour you were.”

Harry died from a brain aneurysm in 1982. He was 42.

Valerie went to university, became a teacher and taught in Vancouver for 35 years. She spent three decades as a track and field official. Valerie ran in eight elections for the Green Party, federally, provincially and civically. She did all that without any expectation of being elected, but as a way of getting green ideas out. “Nobody was talking about the environment at all in those days,” she says. Her son, Stuart Parker, led the BC Green Party from 1993 to 2000.

In November 2010 dozen of her former students gathered in Stanley Park to see a bench dedicated in her honour. It sits in Stanley Park right next to the statue of her brother Harry.

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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15 comments

  1. I always thought Valerie was a really nice person. She and I used to measure against each other as we were the tallest girls at Sutherland.
    As the mother of a Creole child, I know some of what she went through. So glad she has done wonderful things!

  2. It was eye opening to read this account of a life in North Vancouver, in the 1950’s……People point with superiority to the Deep South, when they want to discuss where the ” real Bigots” live……They lived RIGHT HERE, in the guise of the Jerome’s good God Fearing, white, Protestant and Methodist neighbour’s, who would not lift a finger when their house burnt to the ground!……The Jeromes deserved far better, and rose above it.

  3. Harry’s mother was my cub leader. She encouraged me to run, increased my faith, love one another for what we are not our colour. I knew the family well and used to visit often. I witnessed occasions where the family would receive racial slurs and harassment. Fortunately the family had an inner strength to persevere the insanity of racism. Harry, Valerie , Caroline and of course Mrs. Jerome were wonderful people and I’m very fortunate to have known them.

  4. Valerie Jerome was my grade 4 teacher. She is the one I think of when asked who was the most influential teacher in your life. I am grateful for having met her a 9 years old, as a great deal of my self confidence and pride in accomplishments came from her early nurturing.

    1. I was in Valerie’s first class she taught. In grade 5, I was 10 years old. She was the most amazing teacher I ever had. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to be in her classroom. She inspired so many people and she inspired me to be the best I can be
      David Lang

  5. I remember Valerie at Ridgeway Elementary School in N Van. we were in the same grade. we ran track and field, I remember she always came first and I came third. When at Sutherland Junior High, I remember running hurdles. I heard her story last evening on CBC and wanted to get in touch, somehow. I am the former Margaret Manley and did the opposite. moved from BC Winnipeg. so good to hear her voice. god bless

  6. I had never heard of Ms. Jerome until just yesterday. I am an immigrant from Barbados and have family in BC. I used to tease them about not having any black people in BC. It seems to me that she is very much royalty and I think it is a real tragedy people like these are not celebrated much more.

    1. Welcome to BC! I wrote about Valerie in a chapter called Legendary women in my book Sensational Vancouver. When I give talks I often ask who has heard of Harry Jerome and usually everyone puts up their hand–which is great. And then I ask who has heard of Valerie Jerome, and it’s maybe one person. Yet she was just as spectacular as her brother and still is. So I am really thrilled that’s she’s getting recognition–better late than never I guess.
      Eve Lazarus recently posted..Women Police Officers on PatrolMy Profile

  7. Hi I’m a former student of hers and I can say the sole teacher I remember in my Elementary years. She was an inspiration in my life and still am. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am today. Ms Jerome would be the only elementary teacher whom I’d want to reconnect.

  8. My daughter is working on a project for Heritage Fair, about the erasure of the stories of the Black Communities in Vancouver. One of the vignettes she’s writing is about Carolyn Jerome and the Militant Moms of Raymur. I’m wondering if the sibling mentioned in this story is the very same? (In which case, what a family!)

    Anyway, very interesting to read this story, I will pass it along to my kid.

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