Alongside Dr. King: Vancouver Island man honoured for civil rights work

Bill Duncan has dedicated his life to activism and helping others.

And now Duncan, 95, also known as ‘Chicago Bill,’ has a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nanaimo African Heritage Society as acknowledgment.

The retired social worker, who now has dementia and lives in Stanford Seniors Village in Parksville, was born in Memphis, Tenn., when racist Jim Crow laws were still very much in force. In 1943, Duncan joined the U.S. Army and spent most of his time in Burma during an especially brutal chapter of the Second World War, before going to LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis on the GI Bill. He then went to Michigan’s school of social work. When he graduated in 1955, he was the second African-American student at the university to receive a social work degree.

READ MORE: Racism is here too, say Vancouver Island’s black community leaders

Duncan’s path eventually lead him to work alongside Martin Luther King Jr., but his activism started much, much earlier than that.

When Duncan was in high school, he would go to police stations in Memphis to advocate on behalf of his classmates arrested for breaking Jim Crow laws and convince officers to let them go. Fast forward a few decades – that’s when he was working alongside King in Chicago.

King was William’s office’s neighbour and motivated he and his colleagues to participate in the Chicago Freedom Movement, which included rallies and a list of demands to the city of Chicago. King was often seen at the office, which sent out employees to educate and mobilize people in the community to participate in the movement. Bill marched alongside other activists through all-white areas – onlookers would sometimes throw bricks.

Duncan eventually left the U.S. after King was murdered in 1968, opting to live in Montreal, where he would spend his time working for community organizations and raising his family. His wife Kathi was a nurse, and they eventually retired to the Island in the late 1990s. When Kathi passed away in 2007 from cancer, Bill started to volunteer at the Oceanside Hospice Society and got involved in a local church’s social justice committee.

The award meant a lot to Duncan, said his daughter Suzanne Duncan, who lives in Toronto. Even though his memory is fading, she said he gave an amazing speech at the ceremony, which took place shortly before COVID-19. Suzanne’s sister Colleen, who lives in the area, sent a video of the event to her.

“How gratifying in that at the twilight of your life, a man who had sacrificed everything for everyone, because really my dad was smart enough to be in positions of even greater power, he just was about the people from forever,” said Suzanne. “To me, the honour and the recognition of a lifetime’s work, there was just no greater moment in his life that he’s had to me.”

Shalema Gantt, president of the Nanaimo African Heritage Society, said she wanted to continue what the society has done for the last 21 years by continuing to honour Black pioneers who have come through the area.

“I went down to meet him and he was a delightful man who seemed to really have a memory of the things that he’s done in the past and so I wanted to stay with that subject because it really brought smiles out him,” she said. “He looked up at me at one point and put a tear in my eye, by telling me that, seeing what he’s seen with the work that I was doing, that he would do the work all over again just to have a young person carry it through, I was very touched with that.”

Suzanne did say some of the positive feelings associated with the award have been clouded by his family’s inability to properly connect with Duncan since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. She said it’s been especially difficult to connect with Bill at Stanford.

Suzanne said other facilities and communities have facilitated visiting through windows and other COVID-19 safe socializing since the start of the pandemic, but she said her sister was only able to do a window visit with Bill on Father’s Day, after months of her asking for more support. Prior to COVID-19, Suzanne and her family had worked hard to build a plan to keep Bill connected and active, which included socializing and games like Scrabble.

“He’s never ever said he’s lonely before, and now he does,” said Suzanne, who said she’s seen her father’s health decline rapidly since the onset of COVID-19. “His cognitive abilities, capabilities are in decline from where they were with respect to you can tell he’s not talking to anybody.”

Suzanne and her family have been pushing for a plan from Stanford, some sort of action for how they’ll work towards connecting Bill with his family, as well as how they will keep his mind active – that’s Suzanne’s ask.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced on June 30 the province will start allowing in-person visits to care homes, with details to be ironed out on a site-by-site basis. Suzanne said she hasn’t heard anything from Stanford about an updated plan.

Stanford said that they’re currently working on a visitation plan, set to be put forward for approval in the coming days.

“We are working hard and looking forward to making these visits happen, as it will be so great for families to be able to meet together again,” said Barbara Barry, director of communications for West Coast Seniors Housing Management, which manages Stanford.

Barry did not provide a response specific to Suzanne’s questions by story publication deadline.

READ MORE: Daughter of man at B.C. care home hit by COVID-19 says loneliness is a big issue

Suzanne said she’s doing her best to keep Bill’s mind active from afar via video chat. She said one of the main things that has been working is bringing up the current day Black Lives Matter movement. She said a recent call where she brought up the protests in the U.S. made him especially engaged, excited and interested.

“He lit up like he was 20 years old. And he was like ‘OK. So what can I do? Who’s the leader? Like, who’s the primary figure?’” she said. “That’s been his life’s work. So, he comes at it with an intellectual prowess that is my father, that is who I grew up with.”

Suzanne said she was hesitant to bring up the ongoing action, worried it would make her father upset.

“At first I thought it would be really sad, like if you’ve fought and then to watch, be like ‘dang, I did all that for what?’” she said. “But then I thought he would be thrilled to see who was in the crowds. He would be thrilled to see the diversity that exists in the people, the young people that are pushing the moment through and standing behind it. I think he would be really touched by that, he would see that as being evidence of some of the work.”

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