Celebrating African Nova Scotian Educators

A Nova Scotia Women’s History Society Public History Project
(to be installed in May 2024)

This project pays tribute to African Nova Scotia women, who led the way as teachers and leaders in education and spearheaded the struggle for access to quality education. Below are their biographies and portraits. For generations, African Nova Scotians only had access to poorly funded segregated schools, and racism in education harmed Black students socially, politically, and economically. The community is indebted to these women for their pioneering roles in educational leadership.

Unveiling the Portraits

The portraits were unveiled by young students, some of whom were descendants of the women.

Lynn Jones — Welcomes the Crowd

Project leader Lynn Jones addresses the crowd at the Dec. 8 unveiling of the portraits in Truro at the Colchester East Hants Library.

Elijah Morton-Ross

Elijah unveiled the portrait of Willena Beatrice (Corbin Garbriel) Jones. Elijah is the great-great nephew of Williena Jones. He is a Grade 11 student who attends Citadel High School in Halifax.

Brandee Clyke

Unveiling the portrait of Ann Michelle (Shelley) MacLean was Brandee Clyke. Brandee is studying business at Mount Saint Vincent University. After the degree, she hopes to study tourism. Brandee was honoured to be reading the biography of her aunt, Ann “Shelley” MacLean. 

Full to Capacity — The Unity Room at the Colchester East Hants Library

The event saw a capacity crowd come to see the unveiling of the portraits.

Photos by Amanda Carvery Photography

Neron Foster

Neron Foster unveiled the portrait of Martha Eleanor Jones. Neron is a Grade 8 student at Truro Middle School and moved to Canada from Jamaica when he was 4. Neron understands the sacrifice that people like these women have made and was happy to play his part as an immigrant to Canada.

Aria Sealey — Unveiling the portrait of Donna Lee Sealey

Donna Byard Sealey’s presenter was her granddaughter, Aria Sealey. Aria is 9 and a Grade 4 student at Colby Village Elementary school in Dartmouth, NS.

Jayda Ford-King

Jayda unveiled the portrait of Vera Clyke. She is a cousin of Vera Clyke and was honoured to present the accomplishments and service Vera Clyke gave over 71 years as the organist at Truro’s Zion United Baptist Church. Jayda is 8 years old and is in Grade 3 at the École acadienne de Truro.

Biographies and Portraits

Martha Eleanor Jones (1860-1918)

The first African Nova Scotian woman to attend the Truro Normal School, Martha Jones taught throughout Nova Scotia. Despite her petitions to government, she was prohibited from teaching in white schools due to anti-Black racism. Students referred to her as their greatest teacher. A leader in her church, she helped found the African United Baptist Association Ladies Auxiliary, which still functions today. She was a passionate advocate for community, human rights, and for preserving and telling the history of enslavement of Black people in Nova Scotia.

Painting by Letitia Fraser

Willena Beatrice (Corbin Gabriel) Jones (1915-2010)

Willena Jones was the first Black teacher to be hired in the Truro school system. She graduated from the Nova Scotia Teachers’ College at age 60 and received many honours for her leadership in education, church, and the community. Likely inspired by her mother-in-law Ethel Jones’ 1929 talk “The Achievement and Accomplishments of Colored Women within 65 Years,” she gave a life of service, reflecting the heroism and influence of Black women as mothers, teachers, and community leaders. 

Painting by Letitia Fraser

Donna Lee Byard Sealey (1940-2015)

Upon graduating from Nova Scotia Normal College and Dalhousie University (B.A., B.Ed. and M.A.) Donna Byard Sealey was the first Black person to be employed as a teacher in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. She worked on behalf of Black students addressing the barriers they faced. Her research laid the foundation for the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie. Committed to social justice, she was a dedicated historian, and community and church volunteer. Her book, Colored Zion, celebrates the history of the Black community and church in Truro.

Painting by Letitia Fraser

Ann Michelle (Shelley) MacLean (1968- )

Michelle (Shelley) MacLean studied French at Université Sainte-Anne. She was the first African Nova Scotian French Immersion teacher to graduate from Nova Scotia Teachers College, and earn her Masters in Educational Leadership at St. Francis Xavier University. She also has the distinction of being the first person of African ancestry to become school principal in Truro. She later served as Coordinator of African Canadian Education & Services with the Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education (CCRCE) before being promoted to the position of Director of Programs & Student Services with CCRCE, another first in executive leadership for a person of African Heritage.

Painting by Letitia Fraser

Vera (Halfkenny) Clyke 1908-1998

Born in Amherst to a renowned African Nova Scotian musical family, Vera and the family moved to Truro where she married Albert Sinclair (Jim) Clyke, cousin of famed singer Portia White. Following in the footsteps of her mother, Sarah (Byard) Halfkenny, Vera, at the age of 19, began playing the organ at Truro’s Zion United Baptist Church, a position she held for 71 years. She was the longest serving organist in the history of the African United Baptist Association (AUBA). Her loving ministry of music and enduring service in various capacities touched many lives. In her own words, she said, “God has been good to me” and we, in turn, honour her goodness in our community.

Painting by Bruce Wood

About the Artist

Photo by Ryan Williams

Letitia Fraser is an interdisciplinary artist, whose work centres around her experience as an African Nova Scotian woman, growing up in the province’s Black communities of North Preston and Beechville. Descending from a long line of artists, her creative instincts were nurtured early in life. Through a combination of painting and textiles, she unearths previously untold narratives and pays homage to her community’s history of quilting.

Recent exhibitions include Family Patterns with Darcie Bernhardt at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (2022), Every Chain at the Chester Art Gallery, Halifax (2022), Letitia Fraser at Mount St. Vincent Art Gallery, Nova Scotia (2019) and Mommy’s Patches: Traditions & Superstitions at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, Nova Scotia (2019). She graduated with a BFA from NSCAD University in 2019. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2018 Nova Scotia Talent Trust RBC Emerging Artist Award and was recently longlisted for the 2022 Sobey Art Award. Her work is included in several private and public collections including the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Scotiabank, the Canada Council and the Wedge Collection.