Reita, Dudley and Rodney Morgan at their Whitehorse home in 2002. (P. Gowdie/Courtesy Yukon Hidden Histories Society)

Reita, Dudley and Rodney Morgan at their Whitehorse home in 2002. (P. Gowdie/Courtesy Yukon Hidden Histories Society)

Recognizing Black history in the Yukon

Yukon’s Hidden Histories Society is entering its twentieth year of researching Black history in the territory.

“When we started, nobody knew anything … I began poking around a bit, and it was done as I tripped over things, basically,” said Peggy D’Orsay, founding member of the society.

The Hidden Histories Society was founded in 2001 with a mission to identify the Asian, Black and other ethno-cultural people who contributed to the Yukon over the last 100 years.

“Our goal is to enlarge the representation of these diverse individuals,” the society’s website says.

D’Orsay said she was struck by how “hidden” knowledge of Black people in the Yukon was when she began her research. She began digging through the Yukon’s archives and old newspapers, following threads of information from old photographs and clippings.

“Sometimes it was sheer luck,” D’Orsay said, explaining she learned of the Phillpotts family after stumbling across an announcement of a new minister coming to the territory.

The society has now compiled a 43-page inventory on the history of Black Yukoners, and posted broader biographies on the society’s website.

D’Orsay said more archival information is available prior to 1960. Now, she’s working to fill in the gaps after that.

“It’s very sparse,” she said. “The populations here have always been tiny.”

According to Canadian Census data, 99 Black people lived in the Yukon in 1901. That number dropped to 31 in 1911 and then to less than 10 up until 1960. D’Orsay said she believes the census numbers may underestimate the Black community in certain years, as the people polled may have identified themselves as Caribbean or African, not Black.

D’Orsay said she is committed to continuing her research to identify more people.

“The value is knowing your neighbour, the background behind anything that had gone on in the Yukon. It helps people identify and maybe help them feel at home,” D’Orsay said.

D’Orsay explained that Charlotte Hrenchuk, a fellow Hidden Histories historian, had adopted three Black children and raised them in the Klondike area.

“She wanted them to feel that they belonged here, they had a history here, and I think that’s important to any child to have a feeling of belonging and maybe understanding new neighbours.”

The Hidden Histories Society has published biographies of three prominent Black Yukon families stemming from its many years of research.

The Hunter Family

Lucille Hunter “always found some way to make ends meet” during her long life in the Yukon. She is seen here in her 80s at Shipyards Park, circa 1964. (Roloff Beny/Courtesy Yukon Hidden Histories Society)

Lucille and Charles Hunter stampeded to the Klondike in 1897. Lucille was 19, pregnant, and among few Black women in the territory at the time.

“We don’t know why they came up, it could have been that they wanted a better life for themselves or they thought they could come up and make a buck,” D’Orsay said.

They traveled north along the Stikine Route, which was infamously more challenging, because they believed it would be cheaper and easier.

Once they reached Teslin Lake, Lucille gave birth to a daughter whom they named Teslin.

They continued to Grand Forks, where they operated a restaurant and staked claims in Bonanza Creek. After the First World War, they mined silver claims near Mayo and gold claims at Black Hills. Lucille worked as a nanny in Dawson, a cook in Keno Hill, and walked between Dawson and Mayo to manage their claims.

In 1939, Charles died, but Lucille continued to manage the claims for several decades with the help of hired staff.

“She was absolutely committed to mining, I was always amazed at that, it’s a hard life,” D’Orsay said.

During the Second World War, Lucille moved to Whitehorse and opened a laundry, where she remained for the rest of her life.

“She seemed to go from rags to riches down to rags again, and it didn’t seem to bother her, she always found some way to make ends meet and she was quite happy to do it,” D’Orsay said.

When failing eyesight eventually necessitated surgery and the closure of her laundry, her neighbours supplied food and care, and provided an apartment when her home was destroyed by fire.

“She was very well-liked … people always kept an eye on her, and helped her out, and didn’t care that she was Black. They just saw an older woman that needed some help,” D’Orsay said.

“Anybody I talked to over the years all had good memories of her — she liked children immensely, and the kids in the evenings would play with her.”

She died in 1972 at 94. The Yukon Order of Pioneers granted her an honorary membership for her lifelong commitment to mining, making her the first female member, and she is buried in the pioneer section of the Grey Mountain Cemetery.

The Phillpotts Family

Reverend Joshua Phillpotts, his wife Yvonne, twins Margaret and Kathleen and baby Andrew soon after they arrived in the Yukon in 1965. (Courtesy of Yukon Archives)

Joshua and Yvonne Philpotts were born in Jamaica in 1929 and 1934, respectively. They were married in 1954 and Yvonne had three children — twin daughters and a son.

Joshua was ordained in 1958 and accepted an offer to serve as a minister in the Yukon in 1965. The family of five moved from Jamaica to Watson Lake that July.

“I don’t think they told anybody in Watson Lake he was Black, but he managed to settle in and work his parish, and he had some very interesting adventures,” D’Orsay said.

Joshua served as minister to the St. John the Baptist Church, while Yvonne worked as a midwife at the community hospital.

“He told me 40 below was a little bit of a shock to him, when the family came from Jamaica,” D’Orsay said.

Joshua became president of the Home and School Association in Watson Lake, and he promoted the integration of First Nations children into schools. He often travelled to distant communities for ministerial and volunteer work.

In 1970, Joshua was appointed Associate Priest at the Christ Church Cathedral in Whitehorse. He was the Yukon Commissioner for the Boy Scouts of Canada and a volunteer teacher. In 1973, Joshua became a social worker for the Yukon government. The family left the Yukon for Alberta in 1975, after which he received the Alberta Centennial Medal for his volunteer services.

He returned to the Yukon in 2015 to give a presentation about his life during Black History Month. He passed away later that year.

“He was so excited to be up here and connect with a lot of his older friends,” D’Orsay said.

The Morgan Family

Reita and Dudley Morgan both moved to Kingston, Ont., from Jamaica. They met while studying and both graduated from the Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing. They were married in 1968 and followed work to the Yukon in the early 1980s.

Reita was “dismayed at first sight of dusty Whitehorse,” says the archives, but quickly found work at Social Services. Dudley “thrived in the Yukon” and began work developing Yukon College’s rural campuses in 1986.

Both Dudley and Reita achieved master’s degrees while in the Yukon in Educational Administration and Child Welfare, respectively. The couple volunteered for numerous organizations and adopted a son, Rodney, in Jamaica in 1985. Reita and Dudley moved to Calgary in 2006. Dudley launched an organization offering post-secondary education in Africa, and received the 2013 Governor General’s Jamaica Diaspora Award of Excellence.

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at gabrielle.plonka@yukon-news.com

Black History MonthYukon

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Crystal Schick/Yukon News
Calvin Delwisch poses for a photo inside his DIY sauna at Marsh Lake on Feb. 18.
Yukoners turning up the heat with unique DIY sauna builds

Do-it-yourselfers say a sauna built with salvaged materials is a great winter project

d
Wyatt’s World

Wyatt’s World for March 5, 2021.

g
Yukonomist: School competition ramps up in the Yukon

It’s common to see an upstart automaker trying to grab share from… Continue reading

The Yukon government responded to a petition calling the SCAN Act “draconian” on Feb. 19. (Yukon News file)
Yukon government accuses SCAN petitioner of mischaracterizing her eviction

A response to the Jan. 7 petition was filed to court on Feb. 19

City councillor Samson Hartland in Whitehorse on Dec. 3, 2018. Hartland has announced his plans to run for mayor in the Oct. 21 municipal election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillor sets sights on mayor’s chair

Hartland declares election plans

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Public Health Nurse Angie Bartelen at the Yukon Convention Centre Clinic in Whitehorse on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
State of emergency extended for another 90 days

“Now we’re in a situation where we see the finish line.”

The Yukon government says it is working towards finding a solution for Dawson area miners who may be impacted by City of Dawson plans and regulations. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Miner expresses frustration over town plan

Designation of claims changed to future planning

Team Yukon athletes wave flags at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremony in Whitehorse. The 2022 event in Wood Buffalo, Alta., has been postponed indefinitely. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News file)
2022 Arctic Winter Games postponed indefinitely

Wood Buffalo, Alta., Host Society committed to rescheduling at a later date

Housing construction continues in the Whistle Bend subdivision in Whitehorse on Oct. 29, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon Bureau of Statistics reports rising rents for Yukoners, falling revenues for businesses

The bureau has published several reports on the rental market and businesses affected by COVID-19

Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Peter Johnston at the Yukon Forum in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. Johnston and Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn announced changes to the implementation of the Yukon First Nations Procurement Policy on March 3. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Third phase added to procurement policy implementation

Additional time added to prep for two provisions

Crews work to clear the South Klondike Highway after an avalanche earlier this week. (Submitted)
South Klondike Highway remains closed due to avalanches

Yukon Avalanche Association recommending backcountry recreators remain vigilant

RCMP Online Crime Reporting website in Whitehorse on March 5. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Whitehorse RCMP launch online crime reporting

Both a website and Whitehorse RCMP app are now available

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

Most Read