Cornwall’s black history

Image of Nick Seebruch
By Nick Seebruch
Cornwall’s black history
Bob Turner, the City of Cornwall's first Recreation Director and first black employee. TC Media file photo.

It is February and it is Black History month. This is a special year for the history of black Canadians in Cornwall as we have elected the first black female mayor in the history of the province of Ontario.

The story of Bernadette Clement moving to Cornwall, finding success in both public and private life while breaking barriers is not entirely unique in the City’s history. Cornwall’s first Recreation Director was Bob Turner, and not only was her Cornwall’s first Recreation Director, but he was also the first the city’s first black employee and the first black Recreation Director in Ontario.

Turner was hired by the city in 1958. Early in his tenure with the city, Turner faced race-based harassment in the form of letters and late-night phone calls to his home. The messages sent to Turner were by all accounts hate-filled, laced with the n-word and always anonymous.

Turner took the step of moving his family out of town and was prepared to call it quits and leave. The community however, rallied around Turner. Community members young and old came out and marched in front of City Hall to show their support for their Recreation Director.

Mayor L.G. Lavigne went on the radio and called out Turner’s attackers as “vicious, vulgar and slanderous cowards” which they were.

Thankfully, Turner decided to stay in Cornwall. The recreation programs that he started saw more than 9,000 kids sign up and benefit.

In 1961, a new recreation centre was built next to the football field on Fourth St.

Just a year later however, Turner tragically passed away at the age of 35 after slipping into a coma on the operating table at the Cornwall General Hospital. His new recreation centre was renamed the Bob Turner Memorial Arena in his honour.

That arena was torn down in 2013.

As of today, there is no building, soccer field or park bench that bears the name, Bob Turner, something that I feel is a sad injustice for a man who played such an important role in the history of Cornwall.

I’ve been covering Cornwall City Council since 2016 and every year around this time, council puts forward ideas on how best to honour the memory of Bob Turner. I think that these efforts are important and a great start.

Sites I believe that could be renamed for Bob Turner include the new Rotary outdoor gym in Lamoureux Park, perhaps the bandshell, or the planned soccer fields that are expected to be installed next to the Benson Centre, pending funding from Council.

Perhaps this year, this February, this Black History month will be the one that sees Bob Turner’s place in Cornwall’s history finally honoured once again.

What do you think readers? Should something in Cornwall be memorialized in Bob Turner’s honour? If so, what? Email me your Letter to the Editor at nicholas.seebruch@tc.tc

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