Marisse Scott: Educational Reform Activist and
Resilient Role model
There has long been a struggle in Canada to achieve racial equality in society and its institutions. Owen Sound, the community at the northern end of the Underground Railroad, remains important to the history of civil rights and emancipation. The “terminal,” and the dedicated people who organized and moved freed slaves, helped more than 30,000 people gain their freedom through a network of stations using coded messages to communicate. As a descendent of those who fought to help others gain their freedom and basic human rights in Owen Sound, Marisse Scott’s fight for admittance to nursing school was an example of the ongoing struggle against discrimination and maltreatment. Scott descended from Elias Earls, a freed slave from Kentucky who established his family in the Owen Sound area and whose descendants have been committed to fighting against racial injustice for more than 150 years.
Scott was a bright young woman determined to become a nurse. However, the nursing school in Owen Sound rejected her as a student. Some members of the community took issue with her ability to be a nurse, due to her race. Some even suggested that Scott’s race would be so upsetting to patients that she would do more harm than good. Though many community members, including the mayor and her Reverend, Allan Ferry, fought on her behalf, she was refused entry to nursing school.
National media coverage of Scott’s struggle reached the Guelph community. Departing from the systemic discrimination of many educational facilities in the mid-twentieth century, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Guelph accepted Scott into their program. Scott graduated as a nurse in 1950. Her achievement was celebrated as a victory for all Black women. The superintendent of the Guelph nursing school said, “she is well qualified. We think that she will make an excellent nursing student. Here she will have an equal opportunity with everyone else.” But Scott’s victory did not bring an end to discrimination against Black women in nursing. In the second half of the twentieth century, as more Black nurses entered the profession, they discovered that they were not given the same opportunities for leadership as white nurses and they were disproportionately affected when layoffs occurred. The battle against systemic racism in nursing continues today.
Marisse Scott’s fight to gain access to education served as a rallying cry against institutional racism across Canada. At only 21 years old, her dedication and perseverance in the face of adversity has inspired young women and African-Canadians to reach for their dreams, no matter the obstacles. Now aged 94, Scott's bravery and resilience are still empowering. Her story stands as a proud moment in Guelph history, one from which educators in the modern era can still learn from.
Newspaper clipping celebrating Marisse Scott's graduation as a Nurse in 1950. She is pictured in her nursing uniform alongside three other graduates with an armful of roses.
St. Joseph's Hospital, Guelph, 1929, image courtesy of Guelph Museums. This is an older three-story building with a large porch on all three levels. The hospital broke the cycle of discriminatory education opportunities when Marisse Scott was accepted as a nursing student.