Labour leader, civil rights activist, social activist, politician and humanitarian. Frederick Douglas Hodges was born in Saint John on April 19, 1918. He was the son of Hirma and Drusilla (Oliver) Hodges. His family had deep roots in New Brunswick. They were among the free black Loyalists who arrived in the Maritimes following the American Revolution. Moses Hodges was given a land grant by the British government near Bloomfield in 1795 when he brought his family up from New York.
Fred Hodges was the oldest child, in a family of three boys and one girl. Growing-up in the 1920s and 1930s in an all-white neighbourhood on the city’s west side, he experienced racism early in life. There can be little doubt that these early experiences were a source of the assertiveness that he carried with him the rest of his life.
He dropped out of school at the age of eighteen and took a job in a relief camp at Bull Pasture near Fredericton. For his efforts he received room and board and 20 cents a day. Later he moved around Saint John doing odd jobs, including a stint with the CNR digging ditches and mending fences between Moncton and Sackville. In 1940, he found a job as a freighthandler with the CPR on the Saint John waterfront. That same year he married Olive Mildred Stewart. They had six children. Olive passed away in 1965. In 1983, he married his second wife, Eugenia Simmons.
In 1943, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and spent the next two years in Yarmouth N.S. as a radio-telephone operator. When he returned to Saint John he went to work for a local fertilizer company and there he had his first brief involvement with the labour movement. The company was organized by the Chemical Workers Union, Local 204.
In 1946, he went back to work as a freighthandler for the CPR, who had a collective agreement with Winterport Lodge 797 of the Brotherhood of Railway, Airline and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express and Station Employees. However, the union’s international constitution barred blacks from membership, so Hodges was left to fend for himself. In 1947, the union amended their constitution to remove the restriction and Hodges became the first black member of Lodge 797. He maintained his membership in Lodge 797 for more than fifty years. This was just one of what would become a long list of firsts for Hodges as he made his mark, both within the labour movement and on issues of civil rights.
He held numerous offices in Lodge 797 and in the Saint John Trades and Labour Council and later the Saint John District Labour Council. In the 1950s he convinced the Labour Council to establish a standing committee on human rights and became its first chairman. At a meeting on January 6, 1961, he proudly reported that the first coloured student nurse had been accepted at the Saint John General Hospital.
In 1964, he became the first president of the Saint John District Labour Council who was of African-Canadian origins and served in that position for eleven years. In 1962, he was the first African-Canadian member to become an officer of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, when he was elected as a trustee. In 1969, he was elected a vice-president of the Federation for the counties of Saint John-Charlotte-Queens and served for six years. In 1974, he achieved a first in municipal politics; running as an official labour candidate, Hodges was elected a city councillor, becoming the first member of a visible minority to sit at the Saint John city council table.
In addition to his many activities as a labour leader, during his lifetime, Hodges was, among other things:
- -a vice-chairman of the Saint John Port Industrial Commission
- -Commissioner of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission
- -labour’s representative on the New Brunswick Labour Relations Board
- -labour’s representative on numerous arbitration and conciliation boards
- -vice-chairman of the Saint John Association to Abolish the Death Penalty
- -vice-chairman of the Saint John Citizenship Association
- -a director of the John Howard Society
- -chairman of the Human Rights Awareness Association of Saint John
- -chairman of the Civil Liberties Association—Saint John
- -a director of the Civil Liberties Association of Canada
- -a member of Amnesty International
- -a founding member of the New Brunswick Association for the Advancement of Coloured People
- -a member of the Multicultural Association of Fredericton and Saint John
- -a director of the College Development Committee UNBSJ
- -an advisory board member to the New Brunswick Community College
- -a member of the United Nations Association
- -a member of the Planning Advisory Committee that created Market Square
- -chairman and founding member of the first Saint John grocery Co-op
- -co-chairman of the “Saint John Unity Committee,” which was created in the 1970s in an effort to promote the city.
Hodges was given a life-time membership in the Royal Canadian Legion and was an active member of the Air Force Association of Canada. He was also a member of the Advisory Board for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The fight for civil rights and his steadfast support of the working class was not easy for Hodges. His opponents often attempted to discredit his efforts, portraying him as a trouble maker and a radical. Some of the more conservative leaders in the black community felt that he was too militant and outspoken. Hodges, however, was never deterred by these unfair attacks on his character and never hesitated to speak out when he knew an injustice was taking place.
Politically, Hodges described himself as “fairly left wing.” In a 1974 newspaper interview he said that he believed, “that all resource industries and public utilities should be nationalized and that the dividends should go to everyone, not just certain members of our affluent society.” He supported the CCF and later the NDP. He always maintained that the ballot box was the answer to many of the injustices that exist in our society. In a 1984 interview, following his retirement, he maintained there was not sufficient acceptance for either labour or visible minorities in the city. He claimed that these groups are not represented by those who govern us and that, “the only way it will ever change is for these groups to keep united as a collective group and to make their voice known through the ballot box.”
For his tremendous contributions to his community over the course of his lifetime, Hodges was recognized with a number of prestigious awards. In 1978, he received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal and in 1982 he received Canada’s highest distinction, the Order of Canada. In 1984 he received a Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of New Brunswick.
On October 20, 1979, the New Brunswick Association for the Advancement of Coloured People held a testimonial dinner to honour Fred Hodges. More than 350 people from all walks of life turned out to honour him for the indelible mark he made on the city. He was presented with a number of awards and plaques, including a certificate of merit from the city of Saint John and a commendation from Premier Richard Hatfield. Some of the speakers at the dinner included Saint John Mayor Samuel Davis, New Brunswick Environment Minister Eric Kipping, CUPE’s Lofty MacMillan and Dr. Constance Hector Timberlake, of Syracuse, N.Y.
While vacationing in Nova Scotia, on July 21, 1999 Hodges suffered a heart attack and died en route to hospital. Honest, persevering, selfless, thoughtful and forthright is how he was remembered by his many former friends and associates. Former fellow councillor Mel Vincent remembered him as, “a strong, caring, diplomatic, cordial and humorous man, who was never afraid to say what was on his mind and the words he chose weren’t always ones that pleased everybody. He told the truth, whether or not people liked it.” Former Mayor Edis Flewwelling remembered Hodges “as a good councillor, who always did his homework.” And former Mayor Eric Teed stated, “He was always a very fine gentleman, he was interested in people and he did things that were of benefit to the people.” The former president of the New Brunswick Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Clifford Skinner, praised him for his strong commitment on civil rights, stating, “Fred didn’t hold any punches, when something went wrong, he’d be right in there.”
Fred—as he was known to his friends—accomplished a lot for both the black community and the labour movement, and he did it in a time when the fight for civil rights was very difficult. When asked, in a 1974 newspaper interview, what his philosophy was? Hodges stated that it was simple, “accomplish what you can accomplish, then get a good night’s sleep.”
Frederick Douglas Hodges was laid to rest on July 26, 1999 in the Field of Honour, Cedar Hill Extension Cemetery, in West Saint John.