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Eleanor Collins gives voice to strong sense of self

On February 1, 94-year-old Eleanor Collins will be one of the performers at Stayed on Freedom, a musical celebration of Black History Month at St. Andrews-Wesley United Church.

On February 1, 94-year-old Eleanor Collins will be one of the performers at Stayed on Freedom, a musical celebration of Black History Month at St. Andrews-Wesley United Church.

It leads to an interesting conversation starter: how do you celebrate black culture while also steering away from the concept that race is what defines us? How do you recognize race as something important while also realizing that it shouldnt make any difference in how we feel about one another?

Mrs. Collins story could indeed be told in terms of struggle when she and her husband bought a house in Burnaby, there was a neighbourhood petition to keep them away but thats not what she chooses to dwell on. Her story could be told in terms of achievement she was the first black entertainer to have a nationally broadcast television show, beating Nat King Cole to the honour but thats not what she focuses on either.

Eleanor Collins lives in the now. Shes aware of the past, hopeful for the future but very much present in the present.

It get it from my mother, she says from her home in the Lower Mainland. It was her philosophy to keep yourself going one day at a time blossom wherever you land, everything will work out....

Her mother, Estella May Cowen, left Oklahoma in the early 1900s, believing that in Canada she could find a better life. That too was the goal of Richard Ellis Proctor, a Creole Indian from Oklahoma (his father was half Cherokee.) Their journeys merged and after they married, they raised three daughters in Edmonton. Eleanor was born in 1919.

When I started school there, I was very isolated. I was a lonely child but I was a lonely, different child. Students can be, without realizing it, cruel. But the thing that would hurt me most was the teacher, the way she was teaching history. She was speaking of different countries in a very prejudiced way. These people in hot countries were lazy. I thought, Whats she passing on to these young minds?

I was a rebel then. Id pick up my pencils and walk out of the room and say Im not going to take this from this lady. I know shes not talking very nicely about these people.

How on earth did Eleanors mother react when her young daughter showed up at home on a school day? Her mother understood Eleanors reaction but also knew her daughter needed to stay in school. The principal took a similar tack and talked young Eleanor into coming back to class. Imagine trying to explain to a seven-year-old that the teacher is getting older and will retire next year.

Aware already of lifes injustices, and the need to know when to confront and when to bend, young Eleanor took refuge at home. Its not a matter of the colour of your face, she says of her inner struggle to reconcile what she knew to be right with all the wrongs shed have to witness. Its each person trying to figure out Why am I here?

Gathering around the piano was one of their favourite ways to entertain themselves and Eleanor gave voice to a natural talent that soon had her noticed by others. Church was another important outlet. In 1910, blacks who weren't made welcome in Edmonton churches formed Shiloh Baptist Church, one of the few places where Eleanor would see other people of colour.

It wasnt until she moved to Vancouver in 1939 a January visit when crocuses were in bloom sealed her desire to leave the prairie cold behind that she started to feel she was among people who were not only like her, black or white, but who also appreciated her. She sang with The Three Es and The Swing Low Quartet with her sister Ruby Sneed.

The musicians accepted my talent. I got an okay from them, she says.

One of those people was guitarist and bandleader Ray Norris, who formed a quintet that would include Fraser MacPherson and Phil Nimmons. He got her involved with CBCs CBUT, which in 1953 became the first television station in Western Canada, operating out of a converted auto dealership at Georgia and Bute.

In 1954 CBUT put on a musical, Bamboula: A Day in the West Indies, the first to have a mixed race cast.

You have these visionaries who went past the idea of colour, Mrs. Collins says. These vibrant people were so far advanced in their thoughts and ideas. It was exciting, just wonderful. Each one of us said wed bring our best.... We were suddenly a family. I was accepted for me.

She got a role on the show through Len Gibson. A dancer, his career had been given a huge boost when the Katherine Dunham, whose father was a descendent of slaves, asked him to fill in for a member of her well-known dance troupe when they performed in Vancouver. She asked him back to New York, where he trained before he returned to Vancouver to start his own company.

He was aware of some of my talent and needed a lead singer for From Cuba to Paris, Mrs. Collins remembers.

What she learned as a performer was to set yourself aside and let it come through. Shed put everything into the song, creating an ephemeral bond between her and the music. Thats the real reason they called me a jazz singer I never wanted to sing the song the same way twice.

Its her personality that stopped her from becoming a blues singer. A person who never gets depressed by rainy days because she always knows the blue skies will return, if shed have to sing a blues song, shed sing it upbeat. Similarly, she didnt want to do her version of Billie Hollidays Strange Fruit, a reference to lynched black men hanging from trees. I know nothing of that life, Mrs. Collins says. I did not live it. I was a Canadian.

The year after Bamboula, CBC offered Mrs. Collins her own show and she was able to give back to all the people who had supported and encouraged her by having them perform on the nationally broadcast The Eleanor Show. (Shed perform on numerous other CBC shows as well.)

Behind the scenes, Eleanor had her own busy life with her wonderful husband and their four children Richard, Judith (Maxie), Barry and Tom. As she raised and nurtured her family, she relied heavily on the values and lessons her mother had instilled in her.

When the Collinses first moved into a tract of war-time houses on Franklin Street in Burnaby, neighbours started a petition to keep the black family away, saying they were probably bootleggers.

The entire family had a difficult beginning in their new neighbourhood. We lived across from the school and were the only black family for miles around. The children were accosted with names. Theyd come running home crying and not understanding what was wrong with them. What did it mean? I thought, Mrs. Collins, heres something you have to change and help your children.

She volunteered at school functions and taught music to neighbourhood Girl Guides to make sure everyone would view her like any of the mothers on the street. I thought, There is a way. I must win them over, give them lessons on how to do it.

Their house became such a popular gathering place that her husband recalls shaving one day and, looking down at all the children crowding around him, realizing none of them were his.

The Collinses had created a community by breaking down barriers by teaching others how to see beyond the colour of their skin.

In 1978, Mrs. Collins was asked to sing in a Canada Day celebration in Ottawa. Eighty thousand people gathered on Parliament Hill and she became very emotional as she looked out at the sea of people, each one holding a candle. I suddenly realized how grateful I was to be a Canadian for the first time. I was thinking of my parents who had decided Canada was going to be their country because it was going to be better. I was very grateful. I was a true Canadian.

Stayed on Freedom! features the Marcus Mosely Chorale, City Soul Choir, The Sojourners and TriVo, as well as Eleanor Collins and the legendary singer/actor Leon Bibb. A special guest is cultural historian Linda Tillery, the founder of the Cultural Heritage Choir. The concert starts at 7:30pm. Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for students and seniors or $150 for six tickets. Go to

Want to know how Eleanor Collins manages to look and feel so young? Here's her tips.