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Eye on History: Blacks overcame bias to play hockey in Nova Scotia

When most people think of black sports figures, images of football or basketball players come to mind. The fact is that blacks have excelled in various sports in the United States and beyond. One of them is hockey.

The book, “Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895-1925,” gives a clear picture of the contributions of the black hockey players of Nova Scotia, one of the three maritime provinces in Canada. The book was written by brothers George and Darril Fosty, after seven years of research. The cover features a photo of these dynamic hockey players.

The book presents a fascinating look into the world of hockey played by some of the most skilled athletes ever to play the game. These were the sons and grandsons of runaway American slaves who escaped along the Underground Railroad. The black hockey players of this early era had one thing in common with modern-day blacks in the sport – they had to overcome racial prejudice.

Author Cecil Harris, in his 2004 book, “Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey,” wrote: “To every black man determined to make a way in professional hockey, self-respect has always mattered more. Facing abuse that is verbal, physical or psychological because of the color of their skin has been an unfortunate reality for almost all of them. How black players dealt with that reality, and continue to deal with it, is what makes each one unique.”

Blacks had to prove themselves on the ice. Some believed they could not skate because their ankles were too weak; they could not stand the cold; and they lacked the intelligence to play the game of hockey. A similar thought was held when blacks attempted to fly planes. Such thinking has persisted all the way back to the Civil War, when it was believed that blacks did not have the courage or skill to fight. History shows that black soldiers not only had the courage but fought valiantly in all of the wars of our country, winning numerous medals of honor along the way.

The black hockey players of Nova Scotia defied the odds and made history in Canada. They persevered because of their love of the game. These early players instilled community pride, purpose, teamwork and dedication. “Black Ice” called it “the first black pride sports movement in history.”

This early hockey league was created by black Baptist ministers as a means to increase male attendance in their churches, where women were the dominant members. This turned out to be a master plan because it gave black males the chance of a lifetime to prove their skills on the ice. It was complex in its design. The game book was full of the code words and oral history of the Underground Railroad. The game was integrated with religion and used as a means of social mobility.

One of the reasons their story was not fully told was because many of the newspapers ignored the men. Much of this was due to racism. The black players were innovative and had a unique style of playing hockey and many of their moves were copied by others with no credit given to them.

The names of these forgotten heroes must be resurrected along with those of the modern-day players. Their history must be told to black youth and others who would like to play hockey. “Black Ice,” which pays tribute to these men, is a fascinating read. The following is a partial list of these early players:

John Cassidy: born March 14, 1878. Years played: 1899 to 1904. Position: mainly a defenseman.

James Carvery: born Feb. 19, 1879. Years played: 1899 to 1922. Positions: forward and center. Known as the fastest man on the ice.

James E. Dixon: born June 3, 1882. Years played: 1898 to 1922. Positions: point, goal and left wing.

Wallace Dixon: born Aug. 6, 1879. Position: forward. Years played: 1899 to 1904. He served in World War I.

James Paris: born Aug. 20, 1871. Years played: 1899 to 1900. Position: point and goal.

James Paris Jr.: born July 8, 1895. Year played: 1922. Position: defense and wing. He served in World War I.

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for 36 years at the Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the first of four parts.