Black Heritage Month spotlight: Alfred M. Lafferty
February 23, 2021
Throughout Black Heritage, Black Brilliance and Black Futures Month, many schools have been celebrating the lives and accomplishments of Black individuals in Canada and beyond.
One individual had a direct connection to the school board and our region, although much of this history was not widely known until a few years ago.
Alfred Lafferty was born in Toronto in 1839. His parents, William and Sarah, immigrated to Canada in the 1830s, leaving the United States during the time of slavery. William and Sarah, who were both illiterate, were determined to provide an education for their children.
Alfred was described as a brilliant student. In 1856, Alfred was accepted to the University of Toronto where he graduated with a B.A. with first class honours in Mathematics and Classics; he was awarded a silver medal in each department. He was later granted a master’s degree from the university.
After leaving university, Lafferty pursued a career in education, working as head master at schools in Richmond Hill and Lindsay. He married Isabella Campbell in 1870. Their daughter Effie was born in Guelph in 1873.
In 1872 he was appointed Head Master (principal) of Guelph High School, now known as Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute (GCVI), where he became the first Black principal in an Ontario public high school.
After leaving Guelph, Lafferty moved to Chatham, to work as principal of a newly opened school established primarily for the education of Black settlers in the area. When he was working as a principal in Chatham, he began studying law, and within a few years became the first Canadian-born Black lawyer in Ontario.
He was a preacher in several of the communities in which he lived and was described as an entertainer and lover of the arts. Alfred died in October 1912.
In February 2018, GCVI honoured Lafferty with a school-wide assembly featuring speakers and performances, and the renaming of the school auditorium, the Alfred M. Lafferty Auditorium.
GCVI was made aware of Lafferty’s tenure as head of the school by historical researcher Hilary J. Dawson, who came across the little known historical fact researching when 19th century Black history of Etobicoke, Ontario. Dawson has written a book chronicling three generations of the Lafferty family, A Black Family’s Journey: From Slums to Establishment.
Staff and students at GCVI didn’t have a photo of Lafferty to display in the halls, but a plaque now hangs outside the auditorium, honouring Lafferty and celebrating his achievements.