Those who told Geraldine Browning she couldn’t do something usually learned different.
She wanted to be a social worker but was told she couldn’t be even though her Grade 11 aptitude tests said she would be good at it.
She wanted to be a nurse but she was told she couldn’t be that either.
She was a black girl in a white man’s world.
She could be a teacher. She could clean houses.
Although that’s not what Geraldine Browning wanted, she became a teacher with just a Grade 11 education. Her parents figured if she couldn’t be a social worker or a nurse there was no sense getting her Grade 12. Back then they had to pay $200 for her to be able to go to school.
The Gibson Woods woman, who moved to East Preston when she was just two years old, defied all the odds, fought racism in Nova Scotia her entire life, and has earned not just the Order of Nova Scotia and an honouary Doctor of Humanities degree from Acadia University – she became a nurse, and many would argue that through her community work, her advocacy, and helping others she was a fine, fine social worker.
The 85-year-old Kings County woman gathered a large crowd at Macdonald Museum Feb. 7 for ‘An Afternoon with Geraldine Browning,’ and she spoke about her life of struggle and achievement. There was a recurring theme of determination, love, and hope in her hour-long talk that held moments of tears and moments of laughter.
Geraldine’s mother was orphaned at age 18 months when her mother, Geraldine’s grandmother, died giving birth to twins.
“My mom had 16 kids,” she said. “When my father died she had eight. My father died very suddenly. I was only six and a half years old.”
When Geraldine was growing up the only jobs black women could get were working in other people’s houses. Some went away to the United States to get jobs.
“I went to school, a one-room school house in Preston,” she said. But because her skin was lighter than the other kids’ she wasn’t accepted.
“‘Chinky, Chinky Chinaman,’ they’d call me yellow, they’d call me all kinds of names,” she remembers. “It doesn’t matter what we look like. It doesn’t matter who we are. God made everything good. And I always thank God that He made me.”
But she remembers when she was a kid, getting down on her knees and praying that God would make her really black so people would love her.
“That’s crazy, but you know when you’re growing up you want to be accepted,” she said.
She tells the story of when her youngest son Scott started school in Greenwood and after three weeks didn’t want to go back. The Red Cross nurse came to visit her two days later and told her there was a problem. Geraldine went to the school and found out her son was being made to sit by himself because ‘he smelled.’
The teacher couldn’t smell anything wrong, but all the other students had told her that Scott smelled and consequently he wasn’t allowed to play with the other kids. It turned out that the other children’s parents had told their children that black people smell bad.
Geraldine asked the teacher if she knew anything about racism.
“Things like that hurt,” she said. “Racism hurts. It hurts the very depth of our souls.”
When Geraldine wanted to go to school, nobody would take her. She wanted to get into a school in Dartmouth, but the only school that would take her was Bloomfield in Halifax.
She had to get up every morning at 4 a.m., walk to the crossroad, get a ride on the back of a truck when the men were going to work.
“I’d have to take the ferry across, get the trolley, go up to my school – Bloomfield School,” she said. “That was a long day for me. I didn’t get home until 7 or 8 o’clock.”
She did it for four years and at the same time got a job cleaning houses to help pay for her tickets across on the ferry.
She applied for a teaching job at Three Mile Plains and got that. But she said teaching wasn’t for her.
She later did get into a course that would lead to nursing and she had no problem getting a job in Montreal where she met her husband.
On her wedding day she had a hair appointment in Dartmouth, but when she got there she was kept waiting, and was finally told they don’t do her race.
“I cried,” she said. “I went home and I cried.” She said she wished she’d stayed in Montreal.
Geraldine described other instances of racism in her life, and even though times seem to change, she said racism is alive and well today – under the surface but still there.
“It’s just hard when people treat you different,” she said. “It’s hard when people think they’re so much better. God made all of us. We didn’t ask to be born. It’s just hard when that happens to you.”
Geraldine Browning has nine kids and she tells them she loves them all the time.
This year’s theme for African Heritage Month is ‘Our History is Your History.’
The theme recognizes the distinct story of African Nova Scotians and how it is interwoven with the past, present, and future of all Nova Scotians, a media release from the province on African Heritage Month said.
“Her vision is a Nova Scotia where no form of discrimination exists,” said a biography on Geraldine. “She advocates for the protection of women and children against violence and abuse. She promotes literacy. She promotes education as a means of building understanding and compassion. She frequently visits schools and university classrooms to recount her experience.”