Barbara Howard’s trailblazing running career was cut short by war. Then her story was all but forgotten

Barbara Howard received her share of awards and accolades in her lifetime, but recognition of the trailblazing sprinter arrived late, decades after her running days were finished. 

Born in 1920 into a family with deep Vancouver roots, Howard grew up at 10th Avenue and Nanaimo Street in the city’s eastside Grandview neighbourhood. 

Speed came naturally. As a student at Laura Secord Elementary, she could sprint the block and a half to school when she heard the bell ring, and still be at her desk on time.

The track and field team at Britannia Secondary School helped shape her talents. At 17, Howard was chosen for the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia, after running the 100-yard dash in 11.2 seconds, one-tenth of a second faster than the Games record.

The accomplishment made her the first Black female to compete for Canada. It also made her a sensation in Australia, where she was featured on the front pages of newspapers.

Howard with relay teammates and competitors at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. (Submitted by B.C. Sports Hall of Fame)

On the track she helped Canada win silver and bronze relay medals. But individually she struggled, finishing sixth in the 100-yard dash in the 1938 competition.

“She was very disappointed in herself that she didn’t do better and so she was looking forward to being in the Olympics a couple of years later,” said niece Charline Robson. 

Of course, the next two Olympic Games were lost to the Second World War, effectively ending Howard’s promising track career before it really got started, said B.C. Sports Hall of Fame curator Jason Beck.

“For six years there were no competitions,” he said. “The window of opportunity for an amateur athlete at that time — especially a female — was very narrow. And the war just took that away from her, unfortunately.”

Howard, right, struggles during the 100-yard dash final at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. (Submitted by B.C. Sports Hall of Fame)

A walking encyclopedia of local sports knowledge, even Beck admits he was late learning about Howard. 

“I actually asked her about it because I thought it was odd her story had been almost completely forgotten,” he said. 

“When she came back to Vancouver [in 1938] she felt she had let the city and the country down. So she actually downplayed her athletic career — she didn’t talk about it.”

Pioneering educator

With running in the rear-view, Howard began work on another legacy, turning her formidable energies to education — both her own and others’.

After graduating from UBC, she became the first visible minority teacher hired by the Vancouver School District, spending her 40-year career at schools on the city’s east side. 

Howard at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia, holding a stuffed toy Koala she received as a gift. Howard was featured on the front pages of Australian newspapers, highlighting the uncommonness of Black athletes. (Submitted by B.C. Sports Hall of Fame)

And while she almost never spoke about her athletic past, there were hints.

At her memorial in 2017, two former students told the story about a boys versus girls baseball game Miss Howard organized with her class one day.

‘They thought she was just a teacher’ 

With the game on the line, the teacher took a turn at the plate, hit the first pitch out of the park and ran the bases in high heels.

“Here she is in her beautiful suit — she loved nice clothes — and the ball came and she whacked the thing and ran,” laughed Robson.

“And all the girls on the bases ran and they won and everyone was screaming. And the students had no clue she was an athlete, they thought she was just a teacher.” 

New research started bringing Howard’s story back into the spotlight when she was in her late 80s, triggering a landslide of recognition.

In 2010 she received the Remarkable Woman Award from the Vancouver Park Board. That was followed in short order by induction into the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame, the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2015, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame

Howard and the stuffed toy koala from the 1938 British Empire Games. (submitted by the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame)

Unlike earlier in her life, Robson said her aunt loved the new-found attention on her track career.

“She was getting calls from everywhere, to do TV and radio. And she was thrilled.”

Howard remained active into her 90s, working with other seniors — who were often younger — and immigrants through her Burnaby church, and cheering for her beloved Vancouver Canucks.

She was 96 when she died in 2017.

In 2018, the City of Vancouver renamed a small park at the south end of the Cambie Street Bridge the Barbara Howard Plaza.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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