BRUCE, JANE, public-school teacher; b. 1847 or 1848 in Little River (Elderbank), N.S., daughter of John Bruce and Mary Ann Scott; d. unmarried 30 Nov. 1907 of cancer in Halifax.
A third-generation descendant of Scottish pioneers in the Musquodoboit valley, Jane Bruce, with the immediate members of her family, joined the late-19th-century exodus to the United States, at least temporarily. She apparently spent several years as a teacher in Boston before returning to Nova Scotia in her thirties. She then attended the Normal School in Truro for three years and received a grade B diploma, which entitled her to a first-class licence in 1883. She had applied unsuccessfully for a teaching position in Halifax in 1880 but, six weeks after her reapplication in 1883, she was hired as teacher of the Lockman Street School for girls at a salary of $300 per annum. This appointment initiated nine years’ employment as a teacher of the “coloured” children in central Halifax. In 1884 when the school commissioners amalgamated this school and the Maynard Street School for “coloured” boys in premises rented from the North End City Mission, Bruce became principal of the two-department, sexually integrated but racially segregated institution, with a $200 salary increase.
Her years as teacher in one of the two publicly funded elementary schools still maintained for blacks – the other was Africville – were stormy ones. In 1884 Afro-Nova Scotians secured the right, after eight years of protests and petitions, to attend integrated primary schools in wards in which they resided, instead of only the segregated ones in Wards 5 and 6, and to transfer from the “coloured” schools to the nearest public institution for secondary education (beyond grade 7). Subjected to constant scrutiny by black leaders such as Peter Evander McKerrow and the mothers of the children, Bruce encountered a type of reverse discrimination from a black community which was convinced that separate schooling was unequal schooling, her pre-eminent qualifications notwithstanding. She was one of the few teachers charged with assaulting a pupil, a court case she won in 1886.
By 1890 Bruce had had enough and applied for a transfer in order to escape duties that now entailed teaching all seven grades of the school without assistance. She became desperate when the school commissioners suggested she could move only if she found someone to take her place at Maynard Street. At the same time she offended the notions of order and decorum held by the black middle class by taking up residence in the schoolhouse and regularly hanging her personal washing round the classroom to dry. The quest by blacks for respectability was threatened by the tales of irregular domestic arrangements and family violence that she pried out of the occasional bruised and neglected child. In February 1892 one irate mother forced a showdown in front of the children and ended up in court convicted of assaulting her. The white lawyer who championed black causes, John Thomas Bulmer, conducted a harassment campaign against Bruce, which seemed to unhinge her and make her even more unpopular. Indignation-meetings occurred in March and June that year to protest against the choice of epithets she applied to her pupils – she had referred to the children as “darkeys” in confidential letters to the school board made public by the press – and to demand her dismissal. Investigations by the board concluded that she was an effective teacher hounded by a small minority of parents and agitators. The all-white board’s steadfast support for Jane Bruce narrowly escaped becoming a racial cause célèbre when the hard-pressed teacher finally resigned her position in the autumn of 1892.
In 1893, when the controversial Miss Bruce applied for re-employment, the board reversed its earlier decision and decided that she was now unacceptable as an employee. The supervisor signified his disagreement by hiring her as a substitute at Albro Street School in her old neighbourhood in January 1894. In September she received a one-year probationary appointment, which subsequently became a regular position. Although she had lost her seniority and a portion of her salary, she remained a Halifax teacher, at Albro Street until 1901 and then at the old Acadian School in Argyle Street, a former girls’ school which had become coeducational in 1893 with the closing of the National School for boys. Bruce was also principal of the Acadian, a position she held at the time of her death in 1907.
Life as a single, female career teacher in late Victorian Halifax was not easy. Bruce moved house on average once every two years. She applied almost every year to the board for a salary increase, incurring the school commissioners’ wrath on one occasion for her persistent importunities and on another for enlisting the parents in support of her claim. Although she was acknowledged to be an exceptionally good teacher, she was never able to live down her “peculiarities.” On her death Bruce left the astounding sum of $10,000 to be fought over by her siblings and their offspring in the United States and to be used as proof by civic officials in Halifax that female teachers did not need a higher salary scale.
[The matter of racial segregation in Halifax schools has been explored at greater length by the author in “Race and respectability in Victorian Halifax,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth Hist. (London), 20 (1991–92): 169–95. j.f.]
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.6522. PANS, Places, Halifax, Board of School Commissioners, minutes, vols.6–11 (1878–1911) (mfm.); Snow Funeral Home Ltd., burial reg., 1907 (mfm.); RG 14, 156, no.37; ser.R, Halifax City, Lockman/Maynard Street, 1883–92; Albro Street, 1894–1901; Argyle Street, 1901–7; RG 35-102, ser.53A, vols.6–15 (1882–1907). Acadian Recorder, 9 July 1886; 1–2, 4, 10–12 March, 1 April 1892; 2, 16 Dec. 1907. Daily Echo (Halifax), 22 June 1892. Dartmouth Times: and East Halifax Advocate (Dartmouth, N.S.), 23 Feb. 1884. Halifax Herald, 15 March, 1 April, 17, 24 June, 2 July 1892; 4 Dec. 1907: 11. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 19, 27–28 Sept. 1883; 4 July, 31 Oct. 1884; 30 Oct. 1885; 15–16 March, 17, 23, 28 June 1892; 17 Dec. 1907. K. A. Balcom, “From recruitment to retirement: female teachers in the public schools of late nineteenth century Halifax” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1993). Directory, Halifax, 1884–1908. Halifax, Board of School Commissioners, Annual report, 1883–1907. Musquodoboit pioneers: a record of seventy families, their homesteads and genealogies, comp. Jennie Reid (2v., Hantsport, N.S., 1980). N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1882–84, app.5.