From the very beginning of Sadie Kuehn’s entrance into the world, her life was marked by diversity, challenges and expectation. Born in 1948, she was raised in Savannah, Georgia, U.S. by her grandmother from the age of three months. She was part of the Black middle class and raised Catholic in what she says was a predominantly southern Baptist family. To add more diversity to her already atypical life, she had Jewish godparents.
Kuehn’s America was a very segregated one. She says that schools, churches, theatres, food counters in department stores and of course bathrooms were all segregated. Buses, being one of the only places where whites and blacks mixed, had a protocol of their own based on segregation.
When she was 5 years old, Kuehn and her 7 year old brother would enter through the front door, pay their fare and were forced to ride at the back of the bus to school. This was a common expectation for all black people until Rosa Parks shook up the establishment by refusing to give up her seat to make room for a white passenger on December 1, 1955. Parks was the sixth and most prominent black person to refuse to move to the back of the bus, which led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
From bus rides in the south of Georgia, to trudging through heaps of snow in Kitimat, B.C., Kuehn has battled racism every step of her way. Vancouver is now home for her, where she continues to fight for the rights of all races, creeds and nationalities.
Despite her seemingly bumpy life she says, “I, like many young Black women, [was] encouraged to excel in all that [I] did. To know our heritage and our roots, and be aware of, and make a difference for the larger community.”
The Source: Why did you move to Canada and B.C. specifically?
Sadie Kuehn: I came to Canada with my husband, who was of draftable age. His draft board had begun sending letters and requesting he attend meetings with them. It was thought that it would only be a matter of time before he would be drafted.
My husband was offered a couple of positions. One was in a high school in Kitimat in northern British Columbia. We took it and came up in August of 1968.
S: What was life like for you and your family living in smaller places like Kitimat and Kamloops?
S.K.: In Kitimat at a staff get together at our home, a guest started chatting to me about what it must have been like growing up in the [United States] as a negro/Black person. I thanked him for his empathy and went on to say that I thought Native people in Canada were thought of here much the way that we were by many people in the U.S. with the same stereotypes being used. [For example], that we were lazy; didn’t work and didn’t want to work; that we didn’t look after our children; didn’t clean our houses and lived in filth; [and] that we were promiscuous and were drunkards. He looked at me and said that I was ungrateful because I’d said what I’d said.
Kamloops was a somewhat different experience. The overall population was quite diverse. While the majority of people in the town and surrounding area were people of European descent, Aboriginal people, with six bands relatively close to the city certainly had a strong presence in the community. Japanese Canadians also were very prominent in the area, as were south Asians. Being stared at and never being able to be incognito is just what you come to expect.
Kamloops was one of those places that you could love for its outdoors, many of its people and friendships. For a period I sat on the community health board in the area.
I decided to leave the board after a number of months because I became fed-up with the ongoing racist and sexist jokes being expressed around the table and being told that I was being overly sensitive when I would ask that jokes not be made.
My son, while in kindergarten, [had] grade six and seven boys throw lit matches in his hair on his way home from school. They thought it was funny.
Most of the people I had contact with in Midway, B.C. were great. The town was placed in the spotlight and became national news when it was made known that the then school board chairperson had decided not to renew my husband’s contract with the school district because he didn’t like Negroes and didn’t want them in his town.
S: What improvements need to be made to diversity, and how do we get there?
S.K.: The targeting, isolation [and] shunning of some individuals by some [groups], without those doing the shunning and isolating having any first-hand knowledge about what supposedly happened and why the action is taking place. The destruction this action [has on] the person targeted, their family and friends and what it says about those doing the targeting and our community. We must all work in our respective arenas to ensure that these types of behaviours towards others are stopped.
We can create more places for people to be engaged in real dialogue, where they can provide input and have it heard and acknowledged [and] model a city community where all know that everyone will be treated with dignity.
S: How do we build bridges between different cultural and ethnic communities?
S.K.: Open ourselves to the many possibilities of connecting with other people. A smile, which is offered and received, opens many doors. Most people, groups and communities want to have people know about them, what they believe and what they do. Often all we need to do is make the effort to begin the process.