Rella Braithwaite: Spreading pride through identity

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow human being let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

-Stephen Grellet

From her modest Centennial home, Rella Aylestock Braithwaite has spent many of her 94 years building community pride. Her favourite quote by Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet (above) reflects her dedication to celebrating the accomplishments of others.

Rella and her husband Bob Braithwaite, a World War II veteran, purchased their property on Centennial Road in 1946. They were one of the first Black families in Scarborough. Rella and Bob became very active in school, church and community groups in Scarborough, and Rella remembers attending the Home and School Association meeting in 1949 when the topic was “Should the Centennial School site be utilized as a Recreation Centre?” The results of this meeting led to the formation of the CCRA.

Bob Braithwaite started his profitable trucking and scrap metal business following several years of working at the Johns Manville plant unloading asbestos bags. The Braithwaites’ six children attended Centennial Road Public School, where Rella would later receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for her involvement with the school for over 25 years. She also wrote a column entitled “Scarborough Board Happenings” for West Hill News.

Rella’s passion for writing grew after recognizing the need to share her African Canadian heritage with her children. Born near Listowel, Ontario, Rella is herself a descendant of the Queen’s Bush Pioneers, one of the largest Black settlements where African Americans travelled the route of the underground railway into Canada.

Since the 1960s, Rella’s research and writing recorded the history of Blacks in Canada. Her publications made significant contributions to the existing body of work available in Canada today. She wrote for Contrast newspaper for 10 years, producing columns on Black history and co-authored a booklet, Women of Our Times, for the first Black Women’s Congress. In 1975, she published a book on outstanding Black women, The Black Woman in Canada; and, in 1978, worked with teachers at the Ontario Ministry of Education on a Black Studies Guide for students. She played an important role in the formation of the Canadian Negro Women’s Club and National Congress of Black Women.

Although a humble and soft-spoken woman, her writing is powerful, fueled by the belief that sharing Black history benefits all Canadians. In a 1976 presentation, she wrote, “For any race or nation to achieve recognition it has to have an identity. This identity will become a source of pride, because a country without a history is a country without a future.”

For her well respected work, Rella has been honoured with inclusion in Who’s Who in Black Canada (2002 and 2006); Hall of Fame Award, ACAA (1998); Scarborough Bicentennial Civic Award (1996); Kay Livingstone Award, Congress of Black Women (1989); accomplishment award, Association of Black Women (1983); Black Woman of the Year, Negro Colour Guard (1973). She was more recently selected for inclusion on Scarborough’s Walk of Fame, but declined as she was unable to attend the ceremony.

Rella Braithwaite’s gifts to our community continue with annual writing awards at Centennial Road Jr. Public School, to be presented this year on June 28. They are given to Grade 6 students selected as effective communicators in written expression, both in narrative and report writing. Principal Karen Lim feels it is important that the school continues to give out the Rella Braithwaite Writing Award. It is awarded in honour of a community member, writer, parent and grandparent who understands that recognition can instill a deeper sense of pride.