On International Human Rights Day in 2017, Ashanti Leadership hailed Sylvia Wedderburn as a “champion among champions,” and with good cause.
The trailblazer earned this honour for her quiet contributions to the medical profession and the formation of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.
I’ve known Wedderburn for many years and have seen how she devoted her life to serving Nova Scotians through her work as a head nurse and the only Black female manager in the hospitals in Halifax and Dartmouth.
She was born and raised in New York City, just outside Harlem. Her Jamaican parents had immigrated to the U.S. as young adults. After graduating from nursing in Pennsylvania, Wedderburn soon became a head nurse at the Bethel hospital in Brooklyn.
Shortly after, she met a dynamic young Jamaican man named Gus Wedderburn. She was intrigued to learn he had earned degrees at two universities in Canada and became a teacher in Nova Scotia. They soon married and moved to the province.
In Nova Scotia, they found distressing symptoms of prejudice when they tried to buy a home in Dartmouth. The house was in a “white neighbourhood” where many residents were displeased with the idea of Black people moving in.
With warmth and charm, they slowly gained acceptance. Wedderburn joined a choral group and became a cast member of the CBC’s renowned Singalong Jubilee. She is still a dedicated member of the Chebucto Community Singers.
Wedderburn has served her community in several volunteer roles. Such posts included post-natal lecturing at the YMCA and board member on the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board’s victims’ services division.
During her late husband’s legal career she also constantly supported him. Author Marie Riley describes Gus Wedderburn as a “lawyer with the soul of a social worker.”
He often worked pro bono and remained a mentor to young people. A driving force for many years in the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, he was a founder of the Black Educators Association, the Black United Front, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, and the Black Cultural Centre.
Today, Sylvia remains active in her community and a treasured friend to me and countless others. It’s a challenge choose a few highlights of her extraordinary career but, certainly some of them occurred during her nursing days at the IWK.
Those were the days such as when she was so pleased when a patient made a full recovery and went home. Also so memorable was when when she truly comforted parents dealing with the death of a child. I was one of the latter group.
In both cases, she was a real hero to those of us who will never forget her.