Howard McCurdy dedicated his life to fighting injustice.
The late University of Windsor professor grew up hearing about his great-great-grandfather, Nasa McCurdy, an agent on the Underground Railroad, and he felt the sting of racism from a tender age. He was turned away by the Cub Scouts and told to start a Blacks-only troop. The bowling alley where he earned pocket money as a teen let him set pins there, but not bowl. He could order takeout from restaurants, but he wasn’t allowed inside.
These experiences set him on a lifelong path of demanding change.
“Dad always talked about our family history and activism,” said Leslie McCurdy, the eldest of Dr. McCurdy’s four children. A playwright and performing artist whose best-known works focus on Harriet Tubman, Viola Desmond, and Billie Holiday, Leslie uses the arts to follow her father’s example of keeping Black history alive.
“Each of us is a product of those who came before us,” said Leslie, named Windsor artist of the year in 2014 and performing artist of the year in 2000. Her father set the bar high for his children, just as his grandmother and mother did for him.
McCurdy died in February 2018 at the age of 85, leaving behind his wife of 41 years, Brenda McCurdy. He was a founding member of the New Democratic Party, credited with coming up with the party’s name. He served two terms as a city councillor in Windsor before being elected a Member of Parliament in the 1984 federal election. He was re-elected in 1988 in the renamed riding of Windsor-St. Clair and was a candidate for the party leadership.
He was the second Black man in Canadian history to be elected to the House of Commons, behind only Lincoln Alexander.
A microbiologist, McCurdy was the first Black person to hold a tenure-track position at any Canadian university. He served as the head of the biology department at the University of Windsor, joining the faculty in 1959 after earning a Bachelor of Science degree from Assumption University, UWindsor’s precursor, and a Master of Science and a doctoral degree from Michigan State University.
While at MSU, he founded a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
During his time at UWindsor, he founded the Canadian College of Microbiologists and was the president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. He authored 50 peer-reviewed articles published in scientific journals.
Some of Leslie’s fondest memories are of spending time with her dad in his lab on campus, she said. He had hoped she would become a doctor or scientist, but Leslie preferred dance, song, and drama. That didn’t diminish his pride. Scenes in the documentary, On the Money, which chronicles Leslie’s career of telling the stories of trailblazing Black women, show her father beaming.
McCurdy expected his children to earn university degrees and excel in their pursuits, Leslie said.
“My father was very demanding. But he didn’t demand half as much from others as he did from himself… He was one of the most hard-working people I’ve ever known.”
While he built his career, McCurdy simultaneously advanced the cause of Black people and other minorities. He co-founded the National Black Coalition of Canada, a local civil rights organization called the Guardian Club, and the Windsor and District Black Coalition.
“Everything he did wasn’t out of self-interest,” Leslie said. “He was dedicated, on principle, to making the world a better place.”
He was awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal, the J.S. Woodworth Award for Human Rights, and was made a member of the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.
Linda McCurdy (LLB 1994, JD 1997), named one of the 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women for 2018, remembers returning to Windsor after living in Los Angeles and working alongside her father on anti-Black racism initiatives. In those days, her father was taking on the police over incidents of racial profiling. With his trademark tenacity, he not only demanded charges be dropped, but that public apologies be issued.
Later, McCurdy would help Linda in her law practice.
“I had the best researcher in the world,” she said of her father’s work on a case involving a defendant the Crown sought to have incarcerated indefinitely.
Yet, despite his achievements, racism still dogged McCurdy. When he was 75, he was violently arrested at the Ambassador Bridge as he returned home alone from Detroit one night. In media interviews at the time, McCurdy said the behaviour of the border officials typified racial profiling and excessive force. With Linda as his lawyer, McCurdy wanted to take the case to trial to expose what he believed was a pattern of behavior. The Crown instead dropped the charges.
When McCurdy built his home on Mount Carmel Drive, one of the first in the South Windsor development, his was the only Black family. Families who moved in later took up a petition to make it a Whites-only neighbourhood. Those were the days milk was delivered to the door. The McCurdys often found their milk poured out on the porch.
Despite divorcing their mother, Patricia Neely-McCurdy, McCurdy was present in his children’s lives. Linda, a hall of fame high-jumper who competed in two Commonwealth Games, had her father as a coach all through high school.
“He was there every day waiting for me in a three-piece suit.”
Later, when Linda had a child of her own, McCurdy spent time with his grandson every day, checking his homework and instilling the same high expectations and work ethic he demanded of himself.
“He was a strong male role model,” Linda said.
He attended the sporting events of all his grandchildren and taught his children the importance of family.
His children support one another and their lives are intertwined.
Linda, Leslie, and Cheri volunteer at Sister-to-Sister Think WISE (Women Inspiring Success and Excellence), a mentorship organization for Black high school students. The group holds recognition events, raises money to help with education expenses, and introduces students to professionals who can help them along their career paths.
Cheri and Linda founded local cheerleading club NorthStar Cheer. Cheri, also an accomplished vocalist, heads the organization and has coached teams to international titles.
Cheri tells the story of her father attending the Sun Bowl while she was a student at the University of Texas at El Paso. In addition to being a cheerleader at the Division 1 school, Cheri had been asked to sing the American national anthem at a Sun Bowl event.
“Someone came up to my dad and said, ‘You must be Cheryl McCurdy’s father.’ I got a kick out of that because for once it wasn’t someone coming up to me and saying, ‘You must be Howard McCurdy’s daughter.’”
Linda and Brian, the youngest McCurdy child and only son, drew on their past athletic careers and started a training facility in Windsor. After a successful high jump and football career at Northern Arizona University, Brian played in the Canadian Football League for the Toronto Argonauts, Hamilton Tiger Cats, and the Ottawa Rough Riders. He became an accomplished football coach, assisting Wayne State University’s team to a national championship and a high school team to a state championship.
When Brian was young and living with his mom 1½ hours away in Lansing, McCurdy would cross the border to pick up his son after school to get him to games and practices in Windsor.
“Despite how busy he was, he was always catering to us kids, and we were all very active,” Brian said.
Both Cheri and Brian followed their father’s footsteps into education. Cheri taught in UWindsor’s women’s studies department and is now an elementary teacher in Michigan. Brian, who holds a Master’s degree, is an instructor at St. Clair College and has taught a course at UWindsor entitled Race in Sport.
“My dad did what a good dad does,” said Brian. “He was proud of his family and we were proud of him.”
Leslie McCurdy will perform her one-woman play, Things My Fore-Sisters Saw, in a Microsoft Teams Live event Wednesday, Feb. 16. Admission is free and the virtual curtain will rise at 1 p.m. Register here to receive the link to attend.