Nerene Virgin, ‘pioneering’ Today’s Special star and black history educator, dies at 77

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Nerene Virgin, a former actress, public broadcaster, anti-racism advocate and educator also known for her pioneering work, has died in Burlington, Ontario, at the age of 77.

Virgin, a fifth-generation Hamiltonian, was a teacher before finding fame playing Jodie on the TVO children’s show. The dish of the day In the 1980s. She also hosted the CTV public affairs show. Looking at Toronto.

In the mid-1990s, Virgin worked for the SRC, notably as a presenter Saturday Report on CBC-TV and hosting on CBC Newsworld and Newsworld International. She later ran as a provincial Liberal candidate in Hamilton and spent many years as a writer and educator on Black Canadian history and as an anti-racism advocate.

Virgin’s family told CBC News in a statement that she was surrounded by loved ones when her heart stopped Monday morning at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington.

“I am filled with joy to have known her,” her husband, Alan Smith, said Thursday in an interview with CBC Hamilton.

“His only goal… was to see himself as a role model and act accordingly… to fight racism and make black people in Canada proud,” he said.

Image from a television show featuring a smiling black woman in a pink sweater next to a man in a hat and two puppets.
The Today special aired on TVOntario in Canada and on PBS in the United States from 1981 to 1987. Virgin starred Jodie, who worked in a department store, alongside other characters Jeff, the model who came to life, Sam Crenshaw, the security guard and Muffy. Mouse. (TVO.org)

“She constantly broke so many barriers throughout her life,” her nephew, Los Angeles-based DJ and music producer Amani (Burt Blackarach) Smith, said in an interview. “She was rewriting the script on how a black person can move through the world.

“I’m so sad, but also, I got so much out of it – I would be selfish to want more. I couldn’t ask for anything more… She helped guide me. We would talk for hours… I ‘loved to pieces.’

“I had no idea how important this show was.”

Virgin’s role as Jodie in Today’s Special, which aired from 1981 to 1987, was loved by many.

“When I was doing The dish of the dayI had no idea at the time how important this show was,” she said during a public speech hosted by CBC parliamentary reporter David Thurton at the Canadian Museum of History in 2023. “It would be the most important job I would do, and the viewers would say it constantly…for their children to see someone like you, the character of Jodie, who was empathetic, she was intelligent, she was capable, she was talented – for their children to see this person was very motivating for these children. »

Feedback from viewers helped keep her going, in a sometimes difficult environment for black personalities, she said.

“I remember once we were signing albums, we recorded an album for The dish of the day …and a woman (dark) came with her little daughter, and she…took my hand and she put something in my hand, and when I looked at it, it was this gold ring that I door.

“She said, ‘The character of Jodie, you are Jodie, was so important for my daughter to see, to inspire her to see what she can be. Her grandmother passed away recently and that was the her grandmother’s ring, and we want you to have this, to say thank you because we’re so grateful,” Virgin recalled.

WATCH | Fan Arianne Young on the impact of Nerene Virgin:

Nerene Virgin was ‘someone who felt like family,’ says fan

Nerene Virgin has died at the age of 77. A fan who remembers her as Jodie from Today’s Special explains why she thought Virgin was special.

Arianne Young, a resident of the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, is one of many people whose lives have been shaped by the role of Virgin in Jodie.

“It was a comfort and a familiarity to see on screen someone that I recognized, like someone that felt like family,” Young told CBC Hamilton.

A “master class in how to treat people”

Virgin has left a similar mark on its colleagues in the broadcasting industry.

Former TV producer Robert Lawlor worked daily with Virgin for four years at Looking at Toronto and remained a close friend for decades.

“I had a front row seat to see how a true professional worked in front of and behind the camera,” he said in an email. “In all my years in the television business, I have never worked with anyone who can rival Nerene and her talents.”

Nerene Virgin, Today’s Special star and black history educator, dies at 77

Nerene Virgin, a former actress, public broadcaster, anti-racism advocate and educator also known for her pioneering work, has died in Burlington, Ontario, at the age of 77. She became known for her role as a television host and played the character Jodie. on the children’s show Today’s Special.

Lawlor said Virgin gave him a “masterclass in how to treat people, how to expect more of yourself and how not to lose your value when others are less than they could be.”

Virgin had spoken throughout her life about her experience of racism.

In 2007, she ran as a Liberal candidate in the new riding of Hamilton East-Stoney Creek. A local journalist used a racist slur to refer to Virgin, prompting him to “successfully sue” Metroland Media, his family said.

She then launched Cabinda Consulting to combat discrimination in the workplace and helped Ontario develop learning modules on Black History and the Hamilton Anti-Racism Committee.

A black woman and a white man stand in front of children in a school library.
Virgin visits Queen Mary Primary School with her husband, Alan Smith, to speak to pupils. (X/Learn with MsLo)

Evelyn Myrie is co-founder of the John C. Holland Awards – named after Virgin’s great uncle – and executive director of the African Canadian Association of the Caribbean. Myrie said Virgin had pushed the local paper to “recognize” its mistake and “do something progressive”. The newspaper ended up supporting a scholarship program with the John C. Holland Awards, which celebrate black excellence, Myrie said.

“She stood up against injustice” and “was a strong voice for the black community,” Myrie said. “She left a rich history in the city of Hamilton, and we will miss her dedication, her personality and her very warm smile.”

Later in life, Virgin spent many years giving presentations in Hamilton schools on black history and writing biographies for Historica Canada, including one from Holland, a prominent leader in Hamilton’s black community. She worked to help preserve the history of Stewart Memorial Church, a local black church, as well as with museums, curating exhibits on black history.

“Nerene’s passion for history and her talent for presenting it made working with her an incredible honor and she will be greatly missed,” said Kevin Puddister, curator and executive director of the Dundas Museum and Archives, in a e-mail. Puddister said Virgin and Smith have recently worked with the museum to make exhibits more accessible online.

Hamilton author Lawrence Hill said he had “deep respect” for Virgin, calling her “a friend who always encouraged me in my own literary career.”

Virgin’s nephew told CBC he was traveling to Canada on Friday to be with family. Smith shared a post he wrote in 2021 on Instagram in honor of his aunt, where he said she was “the epitome of a pioneer.”

“Seeing her reinvent herself every (five) years had a powerful effect on me. Her ability to remain fluid, current and optimistic was a source of power.”

A woman in a black dress stands in front of a grave with wreaths of flowers, holding a medal.
Virgin holds a medal honoring Nelson Stevens, a black Civil War veteran, at Stevens’ grave in Hamilton in 2021. Virgin’s great uncle, Thomas John Holland, is also a Civil War veteran and is buried in Hamilton Cemetery. (Submitted by Nerene Virgin)

Virgin is survived by her husband, two daughters, son and grandson, and brothers and sisters.

A celebration of life will be held June 15 at 1 p.m. ET at Stewart Memorial Church in Hamilton – the church where his great-uncle pastored.

The family said Virgin could also be seen in Finding freedom on the Sixteen — a film by Anthony Sherwood which will be released on February 26 at Film.Ca theaters in Oakville, Ontario.


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 that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Five raised fists with different skin colors for the Being Black in Canada logo.  In a framed box are the words "Being black in Canada."
(CBC)



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