Leaving Racism in the Dust: The Story of Harry and Valerie Jerome
There is a reason why in track and field competitions, the sprint and the hurdles are two different races. It is inherently unfair when certain people have to face obstacles while others running the same race do not. In the race of life, however, the Jerome siblings rarely experienced this fundamental principle of equality. Ever since they were born in the early 1940s, Harry and Valerie Jerome were constantly challenged by the hurdles of racism. Through their exceptional character and achievements, they became models for the Canadian ideals of perseverance and resilience.
The seeds for the Jeromes’ fight against racism were planted in their early childhood, long before they started sprinting. When Harry and Valerie moved into their new home in Vancouver in 1951, they were shockingly met by a petition. Almost all the residents of their street had signed it in the hopes of barring the Jeromes from their neighbourhood. When the siblings went to the first day of grade 2 at their new school, they were met with even more resistance. A white wall of hundreds of students had assembled at the entrance and pelted them with rocks. The physical scars that were left on the pair might have healed over time, but the emotional trauma they encountered never left them.
Putting aside such scarring experiences is a feat in itself, but the Jeromes’ lineage had them destined to do more. Foreshadowing the icons that Harry and Valerie would become, the Jeromes’ maternal grandfather, John “Army” Howard, was Canada’s first black olympian and had dominated the Canadian sprinting stage in the 1910s. Howard broke down a critical barrier in racial equality, but Harry and Valerie took it strides further. The pair discovered the sport of sprinting in high school and fell in love with it. Their worth was finally being measured on “a metric other than the colour of [their] skin”.
At 15, Valerie won bronze while representing Canada internationally in 3 running events at the Pan Am Games. At 18, Harry broke a 31 year old Canadian record in the 220 yard sprint. At 20, Harry equaled the 100 metre dash world record of 10 seconds. Despite the pair’s immense success, when they returned to Vancouver from their races, they were reminded that racial inequality was still rampant. The Jeromes’ might have become household names for their countless medals, but they still couldn’t rent an apartment. They needed “white people to go and find homes” because their black skin meant that they weren’t viewed as equal
Although racism was already a substantial obstacle in the Jeromes’ path, society wouldn’t let the brother and sister go that easily. When Harry completely severed his left quadriceps muscle in 1962, the press labeled him as a quitter who couldn’t handle the pressure. For most, such as injury would be career ending, but two years later, Harry ran at the Tokyo Olympics with a 30 cm scar on his thigh. Valerie, on the other hand, had to endure the degrading treatment of women at the time. Along with other female competitors, she had to undergo an extremely crude form of gender testing upon arriving at competitions. Naked and covered only in a beach towel, they were forced to stand outside in a lengthy line while they waited for doctors to examine them. Harry and Valerie’s accomplishments as sprinters are a testament to the excellence that can be achieved by Canadians in the face of racism and society as a whole.
After long and greatly successful careers, the Jeromes’ eventually retired from active competition. However, this only marked the beginning of a new phase where the pair would be integral in empowering youth through sports. Harry helped create Canada’s new ministry of sport and designed the British Columbia’s Premier’s Sport Award Program. Through these institutions, Harry was provided a pathway through which youth could succeed in sport without encountering the hurdles of racism. As a result of his contributions, Harry became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1970. Valerie became a high school physical education teacher and also worked closely with youth. To this day, she gives talks at schools during Black History Month about her experiences in order to instill compassion within students. As Canadians, we need to remember the lessons that the Jeromes’ hard learned experience with racism created. It is our responsibility to eliminate the hurdles of racism. Because if we don’t, who will?
“Famous Black Canadians: 1/10: Harry Jerome.” Canada History and Mysteries, Publisher Name Mysteries of Canada, 16 Aug. 2018, www.mysteriesofcanada.com/bc/10-famous-black-canadians-1-10-harry-jerome/.
“Historica Canada Education Portal.” Agnes Macphail | Historica Canada Education Portal, education.historicacanada.ca/en/tools/55.
“Meet Valerie Jerome, Canadian Track Icon from the First Family of Fast.” Sportsnet.ca, Sportsnet.ca, www.sportsnet.ca/more/meet-valerie-jerome-canadian-track-icon-first-family-fast/.
Walcott, Joy. “Harry Winston Jerome Designated as One of Canada's Greatest Athletes and Olympic Medalist and National Historic Person.” The Afro News, 7 June 2010, www.theafronews.com/features/harry-winston-jerome-designated-as-one-of-canadas-greatest-athletes-and-olympic-medalist-and-national-historic-person/.