Denham Jolly is a man we should know. He is a Canadian teacher, entrepreneur, publisher, broadcaster, philanthropist, civil rights activist, and community leader.
Family and Personal Life
Born in Negril, Jamaica, Jolly enjoyed an idyllic childhood, playing on his family’s 300 lush acres and long, natural beach. His father was a successful entrepreneur and his mother was the local justice of the peace. After graduating from secondary school in 1953, he became a clerk with the West Indies Sugar Company but agreed with his parents that a university education was essential for his future.
Jolly was accepted at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. Upon entering Canada, he was forced to sign a document pledging that he would leave the country the day that his student visa expired. He later learned that only Black students had to sign the pledge and so he became acquainted with Canada’s subtle, bureaucratic racism. He augmented his studies with two years at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College in Truro before completing his Science degree at McGill University. Jolly wanted to remain in Canada but, due to the immigration rules, he was forced to return to Jamaica.
In April 1961, he was finally able to secure the papers necessary to return to Canada. He worked for a few months as a City of Toronto air pollution researcher and then secured a position as a biology teacher at a secondary school in Sault Ste. Marie. In the spring of 1963, he met the young woman who would become his wife, Carol Casselman. After a year in the Soo, Jolly accepted a position teaching Physics and Chemistry at Toronto’s Forest Hill Collegiate. Carol moved to Toronto to pursue her nursing career, they were married in July 1965, and later had three children.
While enjoying teaching, Jolly earned extra income through the purchase of a Toronto rooming house. He then bought a second one. In 1968, he opened the Donview Nursing Home and six months later the Tyndall Nursing Home. The success of his growing businesses led him to leave teaching and, in 1972, he built a state of the art nursing home that grew to 151 beds. His entrepreneurial spirit was seen when he discovered the astronomical sum spent each month for his residents’ laboratory work and reacted by arranging for the consolidation of two private labs and then the purchase of 51% of the new company. Then, in 1990, Jolly observed that family members visiting his residents had difficulty finding nearby accommodation and so he purchased land and built a 65-room hotel that he called the Jolly Inn. A year later he paid the fee to register the hotel as a Day’s Inn. His businesses became international when he purchased a 120-bed nursing home in Dallas, Texas and began a boat chartering company in Montego Bay, Jamaica. When after only two years the profits from neither justified the headaches of running them from afar he sold them both – for a handsome profit.
While becoming an increasingly successful businessperson, Jolly never forgot the racist student visa document he been forced to sign and the racial segregation he had experienced in Nova Scotia where, because he was Black, he could not attend an all-white church or enjoy a meal in a whites-only restaurant. Later, Jolly met Toronto landlords who assured him on the phone that an apartment was available but then became suddenly unavailable when he arrived to see it. When Jolly arranged for a white friend to visit the landlord, the apartment was available again. When buying his first house, the unwritten rules about where Black people could live in Toronto forced him to have a white friend pose as the purchaser while he pretended to be a contractor. He also found that some banks had more stringent loan conditions for Black than for white entrepreneurs. Others bluntly refused loans for Black-owned businesses. Jolly believed it was his responsibility to do what he could to help fight for racial equality.
Jolly became the treasurer of the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA). He learned more about racist organizations in Ontario such as the Western Guard Party that worked with the Canadian KKK to harass non-white people, spread racist propaganda, and urge the government to restrict non-white immigrants. The JCA’s headquarters was burned to the ground in a suspicious fire that all assumed but was never proven to be arson.
One of the targets of racist groups and individuals was Contrast, a Black newspaper that had been founded in 1969. Its articles reflected the kaleidoscope of the Black experience in Toronto from the perspective of long-time residents and more recent arrivals from Caribbean islands. In 1983, the paper was in financial trouble until Jolly saved it by infusing much-needed capital. He became its owner and publisher. The paper remained free to readers even as Jolly increased it from 16 to 24 pages, made it more professional looking with new computerized type-setting equipment, broadened its range of articles, and improved the quality of its writing. Under his leadership, Contrast became, according to the Toronto Star, the “eyes, ears, and voice of Canada’s Black community.” He ran the paper for three years before selling it to another Jamaican-born entrepreneur.
Jolly was angry when he saw Black Canadian athletes applauded for earning medals for their country in the 1982 Commonwealth Games but then having to endure racist discrimination when they returned home. He and some friends gathered leaders from Toronto’s diverse Black community and formed the Black Business and Professional Association. He was its founding president. It supported and publicized the success of Black businesspeople and professionals, partly through the annual Harry Jerome Awards and Scholarships. Meanwhile, he personally funded scholarships for even more aspiring young Black people.
In August 1988, Jolly became a founding member of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC). Its goal was to stop the harassment of Black citizens and the frightening regularity of white police officers being exonerated after shooting young Black men. The BADC wrote articles, staged demonstrations, lobbied politicians, and helped victims’ families. The Ontario government responded to a May 1992 Toronto riot that followed a peaceful protest organized by the BADC with an investigation that revealed and confirmed the depth of Toronto’s systemic anti-Black racism.
Jolly observed that among the problems facing Black youth in Toronto were the divisions within the Black community and a feeling of isolation as a minority within a predominantly white city. Part of a response to the problems, he decided, might be the creation of a Black-themed radio station that would play a range of Black music while offering Black voices and perspectives. He gathered other Black leaders and businesspeople and became the founder, president, and chief executive officer of Milestone Radio Inc. He then led the effort to have the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) grant Milestone the city’s one available radio frequency. The first question he was asked by the all-white commissioners was, “What is Black music?” He knew his group was in trouble. The license was granted to another group that proposed a country music station.
A few years later, another frequency came available and Jolly led another expensive and complex effort to earn it. The Canadian government sabotaged its own process by stating in advance that the frequency would go to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Finally, twelve years after first applying to the CRTC, his third application bid was successful.
In February 2001, Jolly’s FLOW 93.5 began broadcasting an energetic mix of R&B, reggae, rap, and stories told by Black on-air personalities about the Black community. Instead of having to tune into American stations, Black youth heard themselves reflected and their tastes respected over the air in their own city. As the station became increasingly successful, Jolly increased the power of its range so that it reached six million listeners across southern Ontario.
While a financial success, the station maintained its broader mission by promoting emerging Black artists, such as Drake. It provided scholarships for Black youth, staged free concerts, and supported Caribana, the annual celebration of Black-island culture. Not surprisingly, given the racial makeup of the region, 60% of FLOW’s listeners were white. This meant that more than just Black listeners were learning of the presence and vibrancy of the diverse Black culture that was a part of the Canadian mosaic. Jolly happily helped other Black music stations to form, first in Calgary and then elsewhere. After five years on the air, FLOW 93.5 was chosen as Canada’s best contemporary radio station.
In his 70s, and pleased with the impact the radio station had made and that Black music had become mainstream, in 2011 Jolly sold Flow 93.5. He also sold his nursing homes. Jolly’s first marriage had ended in divorce and he later married Janice Williams. They traveled extensively, including to South Africa, where he had made generous donations to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress to support its actions that helped end the state-sanctioned discrimination of Apartheid.
Jolly’s business acumen and community engagement were recognized through numerous local and national awards. Each recognized his dedication to his community and country and to the idea that Canada and Canadians will be better when there is justice for all through and the creation of a more equitable, non-racial nation whose reality matches its international image and the principles for which it stands.
I was invited to write this piece as an entry to the Canadian Encyclopedia. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your social media of choice and consider leaving a comment.