(As a special Valentine’s Day tribute, we’re proud to honour the memory and legacy of Sylvia Kathleen & Edsworth Searles. Married for 61 years, and considered by many as Toronto royalty, their contributions made to the community are enormous. As stated in their daughter Marjorie’s speech at their 60th Anniversary Celebration: “their love and affection for each other was rooted in what they shared: a common belief and faith in God; an uncommon love and respect for each other; a common commitment and belief in family, and an uncommon belief in friendship and loyalty; and last, but not least, a common belief in the possibilities of our community and the determination to make some of those possibilities, realities. (Click here to read her tribute.))
Sylvia Kathleen (Skeete) Searles (1925 – 2008) – Community Volunteer, Toronto, ON. Born: Barbados.
Sylvia Kathleen (Kathy, as she became known) was born on March 17, 1925 in St. Andrew Barbados. Her father, a schoolmaster, stressed the importance of education and could be credited with Kathy’s initial interest in education, which led her to serve as an elementary school teacher in Barbados.
She left Barbados, in 1947, to join her fiancé, Edsworth Searles in Canada. They had met in Barbados where Edsworth was also an elementary school teacher. But Edsworth’s ambition was to be a lawyer. He returned to Canada, the country of his birth, to begin a new life for himself, his wife-to-be and their future family. Kathy remembered the loneliness she experienced during her early years in Canada, separated from family and friends. She and Edsworth vowed to make lonely days easier for other newcomers to Toronto, and every week they opened their home to West Indian women who worked as domestics and had nowhere to go on their days off.
Kathy became an active member of the Negro Citizenship Committee which was instrumental in pressuring the Canadian government to open its borders to people from the Caribbean. She was also active in the Toronto United Negro Association,the Toronto Negro Credit Union, the Home Service Association, the British Methodist Episcopal Church and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (now known as the Universal African Improvement Association). In 1967, Kathy became a founding member of Caribana – the Caribbean community’s tribute to Canada’s Centennial.
Through her work in these organizations, Kathy became acutely aware of the increasing school drop-out rate among Black youth. She attempted to address these issues by establishing “Student Sundays” at the BME Church, where foremost educators in the Black community were invited to speak with the youth and encourage them to strive for excellence. She soon realized that this was not enough and created the Black Education Project, bringing together students in need of academic assistance with Black teachers and university students.
Although her main focus was education, she recognized the need for Black youth to interact on a social and cultural basis. She founded the Canadian Ebonite Association in order to provide such programs. While continuing to organize and supervise the after school tutorial program, she established a Saturday morning choir program for young Black children and and held the first Black Cotillion Ball in Toronto (1968). She later formed a majorette and a drum and bugle corps; both corps performed in the Caribana parade, winning trophies in the Emancipation Day Parade in 1969.
As the Black population in Toronto increased, problems faced by youth also increased – particularly in the area of education. Although most of her work had been focused in downtown Toronto, Kathy recognized the need for similar programs in Scarborough. She began to work with the Black Heritage Association, an organization serving the Scarborough area, and immediately joined their education division. She proceeded to establish another remedial program similar to the one she had started downtown. The Scarborough Board of Education soon recognized the value of the program in the Summer of 1975. The success of the summer program led to the Scarborough Board employing Black teachers, selected by Kathy, to teach in an expanded after-school program.
In 1975, Kathy received the Interdenominational Women’s Service Award for her service to the Toronto community. She has also been honoured by the Congress of Black Women; Caribana Cultural Committee; Emancipation 150; Barbadian-Canadian Association; the St. Michael’s Alumni Association, and a host of other organizations.
Although she has received a number of awards, Kathy never sought public praise for her efforts. Her recompense has come from the young people, now adults, who still acknowledge the benefits they received from her programs, and her commitment. The students who were able to attend college and university because of the upgrading programs; the youth who have become more productive citizens because of the guidance and the encouragement they received; the youth who passed through her program and now want their children to have the same opportunity. For a woman who has never sought publicity or recognition, perhaps this is the highest tribute.
Edsworth McAuley Searles (1921 – 2008) – Lawyer, Toronto, ON. Born: Toronto, ON.
Edsworth McAuley Searles was born on November 13, 1921, in Toronto. When he was five years old, his mother returned to Barbados with Edsworth, his older sister and younger brother, while his father stayed behind to support his family by working as a porter on the railroad. Edsworth’s parents, who helped Marcus Garvey form the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Montreal, believed fiercely in community service and self-determination. They had high ambitions for their children and wanted them to have a profession.
Edsworth completed his elementary and secondary education in Barbados, then went to Curacao, where he spent two years employed by CPIM Oil Refinery. He returned to Barbados and taught at a secondary school for a short time before returning to Canada in 1945, to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer. While living in Barbados, Edsworth met and fell in love with Sylvia Kathleen Skeete, or Kath as he called her. He sent for her and they were married on June 28, 1947. They had two beautiful daughters early in their marriage, followed shortly thereafter by a third.
To support his family, Edsworth worked for the Canadian National Railway as a sleeping car porter until 1950, then he became a postal clerk. During this time, he managed to purchase his first home, to provide, not only for his wife and children, but to provide housing for his siblings. He overcame the challenges of not being able to buy a certain house because of the colour of his skin. He persisted, despite being asked by a particular financial institution, for a white co-signer.
Edsworth went to school full-time, worked an eight hour shift at the post office, took care of his family and still found time to be actively involved in the BME Church and in Black community organizations. In 1956, he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws. He went to Nova Scotia and after a short stay, went to British Columbia. After serving one year of Articles in British Columbia, he was called to the bar and has the distinction of being the first Black lawyer called to the British Columbia bar. Edsworth intended to move his wife and children to Vancouver, but his extended family was always very important to him. So he returned to Toronto, re-entered the University of Toronto and completed his studies. In 1959, he was admitted to the Ontario Bar.
Edsworth was undaunted by a Toronto law firm that said they couldn’t employ him because they didn’t know how their clients would react to a Negro lawyer. He worked for three years for the Government of Canada in Veteran Affairs, but resigned to pursue his goal of being his own boss and opening his own practice. In 1961, he opened his law office where he practiced for 30 years. His clientele was multicultural from the very beginning – predominantly Italian, Portuguese, Black and White. His clients were working people who often couldn’t take time off work, so Edsworth made house calls to sign papers and provide advice.
He provided free legal services to numerous Black community organizations. Lawyer Searles, as he was respectfully known in Toronto’s Black community, helped hundreds of people buy their first home and sponsor their relatives to Canada. In 1970, Edsworth was appointed Queen’s Counsel of Ontario. He retired in 1991, to spend more time with Kath who was in failing health.
Edsworth was very active in the Black community, serving on the executive of almost all the Black organizations in existence in Toronto immediately following the Second World War. They included, the Toronto United Negro Association; Toronto United Negro Credit Union; Negro Citizenship Committee; Home Service Association; Universal Negro Improvement Association; Black Investment Group; British Methodist Episcopal Church; the Afro Community Church. Was also an executive member of the Scarborough North Progressive Conservative Association; a member of the Board of Inquiry, Metropolitan Toronto Police Complaints Commission; and a founding member of Rogest Delos Davis Law Guild, the first Black lawyer’s organization in Canada.
Although he didn’t become a clergyman, Edsworth played a pivotal role in the amalgamation of the Afro-Community Church and the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Toronto. He and his wife were active members in the BME Church for almost 50 years and he served in every capacity except ordained minister, both at the local and connectional level.
Edsworth made time to pursue his love of music. He joined the Musicians’ Union in 1950 as a maracas player. He played trumpet at the Afro-Community Church. While in Curacao, he played with a dance band. In the late sixties and early seventies, he performed at dances and weddings with the Caribbean Meletones, a calypso band which he helped to form. For many years, he served as the organist and choir director of the BME Church.
Edsworth had a clear vision of what our community could be. He was assiduous in his efforts and belief that “the community should try to maintain such property as it has, strengthen its institutions, and build them, and in so doing, rely on its own resources, rather than going a-begging to politicians, charity or government. When we buy a building, it will be ours, for us and for our children; we will support and maintain it as did our ancestors who built churches, U.N.I.A. Halls, etc.”