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Honouring the Black Community

Student essay leads to creation of Canada's first black alumni association

A student’s essay has led to the creation of an annual awards dinner for U of T’s black alumni and the inauguration of what is believed to be the first black alumni association in Canada.

Last spring, then-student Shawn Knights (BA 2004 UTM) wrote a paper tracing the history of blacks at U of T. He was astonished to discover that African-Canadians have been attending the university since the 19th century. Knights shared his discovery with the Black Students’ Association and together they established the Black Alumni Association.

The students compiled a list of graduates that includes government ministers, civil rights activists, lawyers, doctors and academics. “I was inspired by all these great individuals,” says Knights. “But it would have been helpful to me had I known about them when I was at U of T.”

The new alumni association, which aims to develop a network of mentors and establish scholarships for U of T students, was officially launched in October as part of Homecoming celebrations with a gala awards dinner at Hart House. Among the 11 honoured guests were Mary Anne Chambers (BA 1988 UTSC), Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities; Subliminal (BArch 2002), a hip-hop artist; and U of T professors Keren Brathwaite (MEd 1969) and George Dei (PhD 1986).

Eighty-one-year-old Leonard Braithwaite (BComm 1950), Ontario’s first black MPP, received a lifetime achievement award. In 1964, Braithwaite’s criticism prompted the provincial government to repeal a 114-year-old law that allowed for segregation of black children in Ontario schools. A member of the Order of Canada, Braithwaite has received many awards throughout his career, but says this one is special. “I’ve never received an award from my own university. I’m very proud and humbled.”

For more information on the Black Alumni Association, call Shawn Knights at 647-298-9302, visit or e-mail

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