July 16, 2020
Cecil Rhodes School: What is in a Name?
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
–Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Winnipeg was built on the original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. But travelling through the city one would be hard-pressed to realize this history, as buildings and streets often bear names of European heritage. Further adding insult to injury, many of the individuals who’s names are founded throughout Winnipeg are now understood to be champions of imperialism and colonialism, oppressors of Indigenous people the world over. Where does this leave the buildings and streets with these unfortunate titles? How do we appropriately acknowledge and rectify our dark history? Do we wipe these structures from history or use them as a chance to learn and grow? Cecil Rhodes School in Winnipeg has become the poster child for this issue, two heritage buildings burdened with an awful and inappropriate name, in a community again demanding change for the better.
Winnipeg is a city very much shaped by the railway. The transcontinental railway reached the city in 1882, ushering in an unprecedented flow of goods and people through the gateway to the west. Railway infrastructure could hardly be built to keep up with the sudden demand, resulting in a disorganized and unplanned result that did not function as required. By 1900, the Canadian Pacific Railway had enough of the disarray, and embarked on a grand redevelopment scheme including building a new station at 181 Higgins Avenue and the accompanying Royal Alexandra Hotel. As for its yards and shops, 12o miles of tracks were laid through the heart of the city creating an impenetrable railway yard that cut off the northern half of the city from the downtown area, the consequences of which plague the city to this day. The shops and roundhouses of the railway were then moved to the western half of this yard, becoming the Weston Yards and Shops.
The neighbourhood just south of the Weston Yards and Shops was Weston itself, which evolved from having “scarcely a house” in 1905, to three years later being filled with railway and manufacturing employees and their young families. Most railway shops required an eighth-grade education to gain employment or an apprenticeship. This meant that many children left school at age 14 to pursue employment to help support their families. School was legally mandatory until the age of 14 but it was very subjective in rural areas due to agriculture. High school catered more to wealthy families as the children did not have to help out financially. In a community such Weston in the early 1900s, it is highly unlikely that a vast majority had an education higher than the eighth grade.
Known as “one of the younger but also one of the most thriving and progressive portions of Winnipeg” (Winnipeg Tribune, February 23, 1909, page 8), Weston’s children originally attended school in a Methodist church. This was likely the 1871 Grace Methodist Church at the corner of Main Street and William Stephenson Way, which hosted the South Ward School of the Winnipeg School Division. As the population in the area grew, so too did the demand for schools. A variety of educational organizations were established in the area, including the Weston School in 1906 on Elgin Avenue (no relation to the current Weston School at 1410 Logan Avenue).
Only a year after being built, Weston School was already facing crowding problems, with non-resident pupils being told they could not attend the school after June 30th. The Winnipeg School Division wasted no time in addressing the issue, purchasing land in 1908 from J.W. Driver on East Street (now Cecil Street) to build a new school. After some dispute about the purchasing of the property with the landowner, in June of 1908, the Division put out a call for tenders to build the new school. The Davidson Brothers were awarded the contract while the house and stable on the site were put up for sale. A prolific designer of Winnipeg schools, James Bertram Mitchell, a former trustee of the Division and at the time the Division’s Architect and Commissioner of School Buildings and Supplies, was to serve as the architect.
The new school was modeled after the 1907 Luxton School, which had also been designed by Mitchell. Mitchell and who worked closely with the progressive Winnipeg School Division Inspector and Superintendent Daniel McIntyre, was interested in implementing the latest in school designs. The goal of the two men was to provide bright, airy, safe, welcoming and functional buildings that created optimal learning conditions for children. As a result, Winnipeg became home to “North America’s safest and most elegant collection of school buildings” (Luxton School, City of Winnipeg Historical Buildings & Resources Committee, April 2017, page 2).
After a trip to the United States, in 1907 Mitchell changed his basic school design, from a tall, square building (like his 1901 Somerset School) to a shorter, more horizontal layout first seen in Luxton School. Following this new plan, the new school in Weston was to be two storeys of stone, brick and reinforced concrete set on a raised basement. The top two floors each held five classrooms, while two rooms in the basement were designated for kindergarten and manual training programs. The washrooms and mechanical equipment were also located in the basement. Designed to be “absolutely fireproof”, care was taken to use non-combustible materials throughout, including iron stairs, fire doors and a heating system that kept the fumes enclosed in brick. Fire safety also influenced the decision to design a school with only two storeys. The project was anticipated to cost anywhere from $60,000 to 70,000 and was hoped to be finished within the year.
By August of 1908, the site of the new school at 136 Cecil Street was a “beehive of industry” with the concrete poured and the first floor being built by the 15th of the month. A crowd gathered on the 29th of the month to watch George Lister, Chairman of the School Management Committee, lay the cornerstone at the southeast corner of the building while an orchestra played. The “impressive ceremony” was fitting, as the school was anticipated to be one of the finest in Canada, a reflection of the people of Westons’ dedication to financing quality education.
One of the finest schools in the city was this Cecil Rhodes school; probably there was not a finer in Canada. The people of Weston had waited a lone time, but they were now getting something they might well be proud of, on account of the material, the workmanship, which was the best, and the most modern methods employed.
-J.T. Haig in the Winnipeg Tribune, August 31, 1908, page 4
The buff brick building featured gentle classical revival styling with a two-sided staircase leading up to the grand front entrance complete with a large portico. The symmetrical front facade featured large windows with stained glass transoms, horizontal banding in the brick and, an elegant parapet with round finials and a graceful Swan’s neck pediment high above the main entrance. The back of the building was very similar in design, only lacking in stained glass windows and the main entrance was replaced with two small portico entrances, on each end of the building. The Davidson Brothers’ bid set the cost of the building at $64,781, but it ended up being $75,000, which would be about $1.8 million in 2020. The school opened on February 22, 1909, with 164 students from grades one through seven in attendance.
Weston’s new school was named Cecil Rhodes School (referred to as Cecil Rhodes School #1 in this blog for clarity) by Lister, the man who laid its cornerstone. The name was set in stone high above the main entrance of the school, in bold capital letters for all to see. Lister admired Cecil Rhodes’ creation of the Rhodes Scholarship seven years prior, which brought the brightest minds from across the world to study at the University of Oxford. It was an admiral name at the time that made people proud of their school, a school that strove to provide holistic education to the children of working-class families, and perhaps a route to university education.
One of the founding aims of the [Rhodes] Scholarship was to identify young leaders from around the world who, through the pursuit of education together at Oxford, would forge bonds of mutual understanding and fellowship for the betterment of mankind.
-The Rhodes Trust
It would seem that during the design and construction of Cecil Rhodes School #1 all the attention was focused on the building, resulting in the surrounding grounds being a real eyesore. There were many complaints in both the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune. This was quickly fixed as it is reported in the Winnipeg Tribune on June 11, 1909, that there were to be necessary improvements at once. It appears that the grounds were landscaped with grass and flowers and a garden to grow produce in. Schools having gardens were common until roughly the 1950s as they served as a practical learning tool. In recent years, school and community gardens have made a comeback.
Not even ten years after opening, Cecil Rhodes School #1, which had a capacity for 700 students, ran out of space. New heating was installed in the hallways of the second floor so they could function with more classroom space. To further rectify the problem, a new building was constructed nearby the first school. October 1917 saw announcements for the new school, Cecil Rhodes School #2, and it opened in December of 1918. It cost $21,963 for the single-story building with six classrooms. Again, the new building was quickly outgrown. To fix the problem, additions were added to Cecil Rhodes School #2 in 1920 and 1922, adding six and then a further seven classrooms.
By 1936, the two schools had 1050 students and 26 teachers. The schools served as much more than just a place to learn, they often operated as a community centre. There are reports of agricultural shows, movies and teas, just to name a few. The boy’s soccer team over many years proved to be a force to be reckoned with, as their triumphs were noted in the papers for many years.
In 1939, the schools saw yet another influx of students with grade 12 being offered during the day at no cost to those who could not afford to pay. Such school fees were completely abolished in 1940-1941, again increasing the enrollment of the schools. By 1945 the high school department in the schools was closed to make room for more elementary students. In 1951, six classrooms and an auditorium were added to Cecil Rhodes School #1, but this did not alleviate the overcrowding problem for long. In 1961 Cecil Rhodes School #3 was built, the first of the schools and additions not designed by Mitchell. Complete with 18 classrooms, it’s opening in January 1962 allowed for the demolition of the Cecil Rhodes School #2 in April of that year.
Cecil Rhodes School #3 at 1570 Elgin Avenue West (which is often referred to as Cecil Rhodes School #2 after the second school was demolished) is located at the far end of the playing field behind Cecil Rhodes School #1. Designed in house by the Division, Cecil Rhodes School #3 is an excellent example of modernist architecture, with strong horizontal lines and a regular pattern of windows set in steel frames over the front facade of the two storey buildings, creating a curtain wall effect. Four more rooms were added to this school in 1965, while 12 rooms, a gym and offices were added in 1986-1987. At this time the school was also made universally accessible. The school saw a final addition in 2001 when two portable classrooms were added. Today, it is simply known as Cecil Rhodes School, teaching kindergarten to grade eight.
While Cecil Rhodes School #3 was expanding, sometime before 1988 Cecil Rhodes School #1 was vacated and an ESL program wanted to move in. This caused much debate in the community as many thought the increase in traffic with evening adult education would be bad for the area. Regardless, in 1989 Cecil Rhodes School #1 became home to the Program for Adolescent Parents and Infant Development, and the Program for Pregnant Teens. The building was officially renamed the Adolescent Parent Centre in 1991 and remains as such today. It provides grade 9 to 12 classes to those that are young parents or soon to be. Despite the architectural significance of the building and the contributions it has made to the community over a century, the building was only added to the City of Winnipeg’s Commemorative List of Historical Resources. This provides the building with no protection from demolition or modification, and is essentially on a list of important historical buildings that will one day be torn down.
Over a century after Cecil Rhodes School #1 first opened its doors, the school that still bears its name is now under scrutiny. It is not the structure itself that is the problem but the person it is named after, Cecil Rhodes. Cecil John Rhodes was a man of incredible power and wealth, founder of De Beers, a diamond company based in modern-day South Africa and Prime Minister of the British Empire’s Cape Colony (click here for an overview of South Africa’s history). He is arguably most well known for the Rhodes Scholarship, an exceptionally prestigious postgraduate scholarship for Oxford University. The scholarship was established after his death by the Rhodes Trust and funded by Rhodes estate. It was created because Rhodes wanted to further English education across the Commonwealth, Germany and the USA for males. Females were only allowed to apply starting in 1977. Despite this good deed, Rhodes is today remembered for being extremely racist. This alone does not make him stand out from many others during his time, as ideas of racism and white-superiority were common.
Rhodes sought to dominate Africa from the Cape Colony (Cape of Good Hope) to Cairo, Egypt. He denied non-white people the right to vote by limiting their ability to own property, while increasing the amount of land one needed to own to vote. This made it almost impossible for the Black population to vote. Rhodes wanted Africa to be British and dominated by an Anglo-Saxon population. He even had the African country Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe) named after himself. Putting the magnitude of Rhodes horrendous ideas into perceptive, Adolph Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party, admired Rhodes for his ideas of racial purity. Rhodes is argued by many to be the founding father of apartheid, although the apartheid did not begin officially until 1948.
Rhodes is clearly an extremely problematic figure in history despite any positive contributions he made. By the late 1980s and early 1990s there were already calls to rename Cecil Rhodes School #3, likely spurred by the end of apartheid in 1994. The most popular new name suggested for the school was Nelson Mandela. This effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but not without the school trustees being called cowards. Every few years since then there have been voices asking and demanding for the school to be renamed. Ironically, in 2005, the Cecil Rhodes School #3 students won a national anti-racism film contest, and yet nowhere does the article mention the deep racist connections of the school’s name.
Today, more than ever there are calls to right the wrongs of history. In an effort to do better, the City of Winnipeg has adopted the Welcoming Winnipeg: Reconciling our History policy. This policy is to form a committee of diverse individuals to look at the names of historical markers, places, and streets. They are still in the early phases, still recruiting committee members. White history has long dominated the narrative without any real acknowledgements of its terrible past. In Winnipeg, Cecil Rhodes School has made headlines with the public demanding a name change. The reality is building names change all the time, often as owners change, a different business moves in or a new sponsor is brought on board. The worth of a building is not determined by the words above the door. Additionally, Rhodes had no direct ties to Winnipeg, making this arguably an easy name to change. The Winnipeg School Division will be debating a name change in fall 2020. Now what about all the other names and figures in Canadian history? How do we preserve history, while righting wrongs, without erasing it? Where is the line drawn and who decides that? We need to stop admiring history through “Rhodes” coloured glasses.
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Written by Rheanna Costen and Cheryl Mann on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.
"Buildings for Sale" | Winnipeg Free Press - June 27, 1908, Page 2.
"Camera Shows Life In City's Public School Classrooms" | Winnipeg Free Press - February 27, 1936, Page 3.
"Cecil Rhodes Passed Peacefully Away" | Winnipeg Free Press - March 27, 1902, Page 1.
Chadya, Joyce | History 3110: History of South Africa: from Jan Van Riebeck to Nelson Mandela, University of Manitoba, Fall 2016.
"Colleagues chose 'coward's way out' on school name, trustee says" | Winnipeg Free Press - May 12, 1991, Page 40.
"Contract Let for Weston School Last Night - Cost $64,781" | Winnipeg Tribune - June 25, 1908, Page 9.
"Good Investment" | Winnipeg Free Press - October 22, 1960, Page 44.
"Group Opposes New Use of Vacant Cecil Rhodes School" | Winnipeg Free Press - January 31, 1988, Page 46.
"Group wants school named in honor of Nelson Mandela" | Winnipeg Free Press - April 14, 1991, Page 100
"New City Schools" | Winnipeg Free Press - June 17, 1908, Page 16.
"Notes." | Winnipeg Tribune - August 15, 1908, Page 7.
"Peace Declared in South Africa" | Winnipeg Free Press - June 2, 1902, Page 1.
"Ratepayers' Meeting." | Winnipeg Tribune - November 21, 1908, Page 4.
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"Settle Dispute." | Winnipeg Tribune - April 21, 1908, Page 10.
"Students' Video Wins National Awards" | Winnipeg Free Press - May 10, 2005, Page 24.
"Tenders Called For." | Winnipeg Free Press - June 20, 1908, Page 6.
"Weston School Opened" | Winnipeg Tribune - February 22, 1909, Page 8.
"Will Build Five Schools" | Winnipeg Tribune - June 10, 1908, Page 8.