In Memoriam: Honouring Dr. Ethilda “Tilly” Johnson’s remarkable legacy

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As we celebrate Black History Month, we are honoured to acknowledge Hamilton’s own Dr. Ethilda “Tilly” Johnson whose remarkable legacy was to help youth pursue higher education.  Today this legacy is being lived out, as many people continue to support and contribute towards what Dr. Johnson began. Illuminessence Magazine is both honoured and humbled to be a part of such a life achievement fulfilled. 

Take a moment to read about Dr. Johnson’ s remarkable life.

Dr. Ethilda Johnson’s remarkable legacy as a pioneer, humanitarian, human-rights activist, community-builder and an entrepreneur is worthy of merit and emulation.

"Growing up, I saw a lot of people with needs and thought I could help make a difference" says Ms. Tilly Johnson (Photo: Illuminessence/Alyssa Lai)

“Growing up, I saw a lot of people with needs and thought I could help make a difference” says Ms. Tilly Johnson (Photo: Illuminessence/Alyssa Lai)

A pioneering legacy

Fondly known to many as “Miss Tilly”, Dr. Johnson is the first black business owner and one of the longest serving vendors in the Hamilton Farmer’s Market, where she has operated her stall “Tilda’s Tropical Delights” since 1972.

“Miss Tilly” is credited for introducing Caribbean food to the farmer’s market and her stall is often described as “the most colourful stall in the market” with its vibrant variety of exotic foods and spices. Prior to setting up her stall in Hamilton, “Miss Tilly” was also a vendor at the Ontario Food Terminal in West Toronto, decades ago.

A distinguished Hamiltonian, Dr. Johnson was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Laws from McMaster University in 2002 and inducted into the Hamilton Gallery of Distinction in recognition of her community and entrepreneurial accomplishments.

Dr. Ethilda Johnson with Dr. Patrick Deane, President of McMaster University being conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws (Photo-illuminessence/Alyssa Lai)

Dr. Ethilda Johnson with Dr. Patrick Deane, President of McMaster University being conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws (Photo-illuminessence/Alyssa Lai)

Also a benevolent humanitarian, “Miss Tilly” is the founder of the Tilly Johnson Scholarship Foundation which assists youth of African-Canadian descent with educational expenses. Founded in 1997, many local youth have been recipients of the scholarship. As for her motivation to set up the scholarship, “Ms. Tilly” says,

“Growing up, I saw a lot of people with needs and thought I could help make a difference.”

An inspiration to many

“Ms. Tilly” is truly a role model to many. Maxine Carter fondly describes her as;

“A strong pioneer who doesn’t give up no matter what. She appeals across the board and lifts herself and others up. She gives opportunities to others to learn skills. She is a justice seeker and fights for human rights. Ms. Tilly is a straight shooter who sometimes startles people, but many look up to her for strength and inspiration. She has helped shape Hamilton, the farmer’s market and has left her mark.”

Ann Miller, owner of the Artisan Market says her decision to establish a stall at the Hamilton Farmer’s Market was largely influenced by Ms. Tilly’s example stating;

“I want to continue Tilly’s legacy because she succeeded during an era when immigrants struggled to succeed. She weathered it all and left a mark on many people’s lives”.

Despite her numerous successes, “Ms. Tilly” recalls experiences of “blatant racism and discrimination” meted towards her at the farmer’s market. These experiences eventually led to her filing a human rights case against the City of Hamilton, to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. A case she ultimately won and served as an exemplary victory. However, “Ms. Tilly” says that she does not hold grudges but believes in “telling people how you feel”.
Often noted as being a “straight-shooter”, “Ms. Tilly” offers no apologies and states,

“I was born that way. I wear my heart on my sleeve and know no other way. When authenticity is not real, it shows”.

A “community” treasure

Miss Tilly’s accomplishments and community contributions were recently celebrated at a tribute gala organized in her honour by Maxine Carter, Manager of the City of Hamilton’s Access and Equity office, Vinnette Seaton (Lynstead Market) , Sean Gibson (The Barber Centre), Doreen Johnson, Eva Quildon, Kathleen Brooks and other members of Hamilton’s Caribbean community, friends and family. Many were in attendance including local politicians, distinguished guests, media, previous award recipients, youth, Hamilton Farmer’s Market vendors, friends and family including her nieces from the U.K, where Dr. Johnson resided before immigrating to Canada.

I was honoured to chat with “Miss Tilly” prior to the tribute gala, and she shared valuable pearls of wisdom with me. She also shared her motivation for not giving up despite the challenges she faced in life and her hopes for peace and unity among Hamiltonians and future generations.

During our intimate conversation, “Miss Tilly” fondly recalls growing up in Jamaica and boasts about her track and field prowess, of which she has numerous trophies as proof.

In her own words

Fond childhood memories
I was born in Jamaica and have 8 siblings. I loved sports and won mostly 1st place in most competitions. From my early years, I was always “ a dresser and love to look good”.

Commenting on her stylish looks, Ms. Tilly says, "I was always a dresser and love to look good", says Ms. Tilly (Photo: illuminessence/Alyssa Lai)

Commenting on her stylish looks, Ms. Tilly says, “I was always a dresser and love to look good”, says Ms. Tilly (Photo: illuminessence/Alyssa Lai)

On life in Canada
First I moved to England to study and later came to Canada in 1968. I worked at Macassa Lodge and St. Peter’s Hospital. But I always wanted to be my own boss. I have seen lots of transformation over the years. Like the market, it used to be outside.

On longevity
Thank God I am still alive. I don’t make too many plans. I just go with the flow.

One wish
That long when I am gone, the Tilly Johnson Scholarship Foundation will continue. Education is key and we have to reach out to help the young people.

Advice for the younger generation
Unite and love one another. Be yourself.

Dr. Ethilda "Tilly" Johnson and Illuminessence Founder/Publisher, May-Marie Duwai-Sowa- (Photo: illuminessence/Alyssa Lai)

Dr. Ethilda “Tilly” Johnson and Illuminessence Founder/Publisher, May-Marie Duwai-Sowa- (Photo: illuminessence/Alyssa Lai)

* Illuminessence was honoured to present “Ms. Tilly” with a “Legacy of Merit Award” in recognition of her distinctive legacy and invaluable contributions to youth and community development, at the tribute gala held in her honour on June 21, 2014.

UPDATE: Miss Tilly sadly passed away on Friday, August 19, 2016.  She was truly an inspiration to us all and will be sadly missed.  Rest in perfect peace.

May-Marie is driven by passion and purpose to tirelessly promote social change, diversity, equity and women's empowerment in both her personal and professional endeavours.