Alvin B. Aberdeen Duncan 1913-2009

His ancestors escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad, and he dedicated himself to black history

Alvin B. Aberdeen DuncanAlvin B. Aberdeen Duncan was born on Feb. 27, 1913, in Oakville, Ont., to Alexander and Isabella Duncan, whose ancestors escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad. The third of six children, Alvin had a “captivating smile” and outgoing nature, says younger sister Marion. Before school, his loyal cadre of friends would wait outside until he was ready. Though his mom insisted he stay out of rugby, Alvin “went straight” to it—early evidence, says Marion, of his strong will.

A short boat ride from New York state, Oakville had been a terminus for escaped slaves, and when Alvin was young, the black community numbered several hundred. They marked Emancipation Day in August with a picnic in George Street Park. Alvin’s dad, who was a painter and decorator, also served as organist and choirmaster at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Alvin played ukelele, and the family often gathered around the piano to “sing spirituals,” says Marion. Though she says they were “accepted,” racism percolated beneath the surface. When Alvin was 17, the Ku Klux Klan came to Oakville to stop a black man from marrying a white woman. The cross burning on a lawn was not something Alvin would forget.

Electronics fascinated him. After graduating high school, Alvin would “thumb his way” to Ryerson in Toronto, where he took a radio course. When the Second World War broke out, he set his sights on joining the Royal Canadian Air Force. It took him two tries to pass the entrance exam. Then, military doctors claimed “his heart was on the wrong side,” says friend Raymond Smith, “as a last shot to get him out.” But the apparent discrimination didn’t rattle Alvin, who, says Ray, “wasn’t one to go that way.” He confronted the doctors, and they relented. He volunteered for a secret mission in Northern Ireland, where the British were using radar to monitor the activity of ships in the North Atlantic. Of 5,000 Canadian radar operators on loan to the RAF, Alvin was one of two blacks.

While he was away, he had to be completely incommunicado. “We didn’t know what happened to him,” says Marion. Upon his return, he found work at Avro Canada, which produced CF-100 jet fighters during the Cold War. When the Toronto plant closed in 1959, Alvin opened a TV repair business in Oakville. He and his wife Icilda Francis had trouble conceiving, so they took in foster kids. Even after daughter Arlene was born, she says, “we were one big family.” An avid jazz fan, Alvin shared his love of Fats Waller and Billie Holiday. “There was always music in our house,” says Arlene.

After his experience in the air force, Alvin began piecing together the story of Oakville’s black community. His collection of books, photographs and clippings grew into “organized chaos,” says Veronica Tyrrell, president of the Canadian Caribbean Association of Halton. “He recognized this was history [and] realized that he was part of it.” A veritable “fountain of knowledge,” says author Lawrence Hill, he was generous with his time and information. Before Lawrence wrote his novel Any Known Blood, he spent hours with Alvin, documenting his stories. (The character Aberdeen is loosely based on him.)

Alvin had been divorced for some time when he met Verda Cook at an Ontario Black History Society meeting in the ’80s. Close companions, they went to community events and chatted on the phone daily. Once he retired, Alvin became a regular speaker at local schools, and lent his knowledge and collection to the Oakville Museum’s Black History Exhibit. While telling his stories to students, “he had them in the palm of his hand,” says museum employee Susan Crane. When February was declared Black History Month in 1996, Alvin travelled to Ottawa for the ceremony. A humble man, he didn’t boast about the awards he received for his military service and community involvement, but he always sported a pin as a small reminder of his accomplishments. However, his pride for Arlene, an actress who currently plays Fatima in Little Mosque on the Prairie, was another story. “Everything was Arlene,” says Veronica.

Fiercely independent, Alvin had to be talked out of renewing his driver’s licence at age 90. Soon after, Alzheimer’s started to encroach on his memory, and he moved into a nursing home. But he always recalled his grandsons, and when Arlene visited, he asked after them by name. In the run-up to the recent U.S. election, she brought in news stories about Barack Obama. After watching the inauguration of the first black president, he remarked, “I’ve seen it all.” The next day, Alvin suffered a stroke. On Jan. 29, he passed away. Alvin was 95. His funeral was held during Black History Month. Says Arlene, “He could not have been more tickled.”