Barbara Howard, February 1938
Barbara Howard was once among the fastest women in the world and the first black woman to represent Canada on the international sports stage. At the age of 17, while still a student at Britannia High School, Howard qualified for the 1938 British Empire Games by sprinting 100 yards in 11.2 seconds, a tenth of a second faster than the Games’ record.
After a month-long voyage to get to the games in Sidney, Howard drew much attention from the Australian media and sports fans, according to the Globe:
Barbara Howard, dusky sprinter from B.C., caused quite a stir among Sydney’s populace during her appearance at the Empire games … She apparently was quite a novelty … appearing on the front page of every newspaper. They seldom see colored athletes down there … the photographers and autograph seekers kept on her trail.
Howard placed sixth in the 100 yard dash, but helped bring home silver and bronze medals in two relay races. She felt she let down Canada, so never made a big deal out of the Games when she got home. “I didn’t think I did well,” she said. “It was nothing to be boasting about if I didn’t get the gold medal.” Her plan was to redeem herself at the 1940 Olympics, but those hopes died because the world was at war and the Games were cancelled. With her sports career behind her, Howard completed the teaching program at UBC and became the first visible minority hired by the Vancouver School Board.
Only recently has Barbara Howard’s pioneering role in sports been recognized. Last month, at the age of 92, she was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame. She is also depicted in a mural commemorating the centenary of her old high school and was awarded the “Freedom of the Municipality” by Belcarra, where she lived for years.
There has been speculation that Howard might be related to Olympians Valerie and Harry Jerome. Maybe, maybe not, but there is definitely one other fleet-footed person in her family. Barbara Howard’s uncle was Elijah “Lige” Scurry, a local lacrosse legend in the 1890s, when it was the most popular sport around. Lige was so fast on the field that Victoria and New Westminster joined forces to impose a “colour bar” on the league, which effectively ended the lacrosse career of the Vancouver team’s best player. For both Lige Scurry and his niece, the journey to their full athletic potential was cut short by circumstances beyond their control.
For more on Barbara Howard, see Tom Hawthorn’s blog. Thanks to John Burwood for spotting the link between Barbara Howard and Elijah Scurry.
Source: City of Vancouver Archives #371-1643