The life & times of Alfie Pierce

Queen’s still grapples with how to commemorate his legacy

Alfie Pierce appearing at a football game.
Alfie Pierce appearing at a football game.
Supplied by Queen's Archives.

While the social climate on Queen’s campus continually evolves, the life story of Kingston’s Alfie Pierce captures a snapshot of the University’s problematic past with the Black community.

Pierce’s life was filled with adventure, danger and mistreatment — most of which took place on campus and around Kingston. 

To understand his story, it’s important to go back to the beginning. Pierce was born in Kingston on May 24, 1874. He was baptized at St. James Anglican Church, a historical building that once stood on Bader Lane, where Ban Righ Hall now sits. With two fugitive former slaves as his parents and his African-American lineage, Stones Kingston said Pierce was considered both a minority in Kingston and on campus. 

When he was 12, Pierce suffered the loss of his father and mother in rapid succession. At the time, he attended Gordon Street Public School, a building which was located on what’s now University Avenue. 

As a talented football and baseball player in his youth, Pierce could often be found running around on the Queen’s campus fields. At 15, he was spotted by the University’s football captain Guy Curtis and was invited to football practice. 

After spending time with the team, he was quickly integrated as one of them. Over his time with the Gaels, Pierce served as the water boy, masseuse and handyman. Most famously, he was the team’s mascot.

According to an entry in the Queen’s Encyclopedia, “[Pierce] became the charm piece or object of amusement for the team of white men.” 

Pierce had his own chapter dedicated to him in Mervin Daub’s book Gael Force: A Century of Football. While the book outlined how people percieved Pierce’s role on the team — some said he was a glorified personal slave, others thought he was an important part of the team — Daub described Pierce’s role at football games in a chapter titled “A Gentleman of Colour.”

“Alfie stood on the playing field to greet players, headed by their captain, as they ran single-file from the dressing room.” Daub wrote. “He was flamboyantly dressed in the University’s colours – blue tunic with red cuffs, yellow waistcoat with red buttons and red trousers.”

“He threw the football to the captain who led the pre-game warm-up … flanked by a couple of cheerleaders, Alfie then made his way to the bleachers on the student side of the field,” Daub continued.

According to an entry in Queen’s Encyclopedia about Alfie Pierce, he lived under the stadium in the summers. In the winter, he was moved into the boiler room of the Jock Hartey Arena on campus. 

One of the main problems cited by Stone City Stories of the living space was the fact Pierce wasn’t given anywhere to cook or eat. He would place a can of beans on one of the boilers so it would be prepared when he woke up the next day. 

Also, the room didn’t come free of charge for Pierce. In turn, he was responsible for restocking the coal, acting as the night watchman and doing general maintenance. On top of this, the University paid him $10 a week.

The most problematic part of Pierce’s living situation was his roommate. When he slept under the stadium in the summer, Pierce shared the space with Queen’s former mascot Boo Hoo the bear. 

Not only did they share a room, Pierce and Boo Hoo also both acted as mascots for the football team. After two years as roommates, the bear was sent to live in a zoo in Watertown, N.Y. because she had become vicious. 

By 1951, Pierce had suffered two strokes and passed away in February of that year. When he died, it was apparent that many people on Queen’s campus were deeply touched by the loss. 

After his death, his body was laid on the gymnasium floor for two hours as students, professors and people from Kingston came to pay their respects. He was later buried at the Kingston Cataraqui Cemetery, with his tombstone paid for by the School of Medicine’s 1932 graduating class. 

Before and after his death, Pierce has had a polarizing legacy. 

Since 1947, Queen’s Athletics has awarded the Alfie Pierce trophy in honour of his spirit and commitment to the school. The award is annually given to a male and female athlete who have contributed the most to athletics in their first year of university. 

Following a landslide vote to change the name of The Underground in 1981, the campus bar was renamed “Alfie’s” to honour his legacy. At the time, the AMS’ decision wasn’t met without controversy.

In 2006, the name of “Alfie’s” was brought in to question. 

Then-AMS Social Issues Commissioner Allison Williams acknowledged there were two different sides to the story of Alfie Pierce.

“There’s the happy alumni story camp where Alfie was this happy-go-lucky guy and the University swooped in and saved him from a life of hardship,” Williams told The Journal in 2006. “There’s the other camp where he lived in the boiler room with Boo Hoo the Bear,” she added.

The reconsideration on the part of Williams led Darcell Bullen, ArtSci ’08, to organize an event in 2006 called “Free Alfie.” He told The Journal at the time that “Queen’s is focused on the spirited side of Alfie’s. We want students to be aware of the full account of his experiences and why the campus bar is named after him.”

The event Bullen hosted had 150 students in attendance and the idea of changing the name of Alfie’s was brought up at AMS Assembly as well.

In an interview with The Journal, Williams brought up the idea of installing a plaque outside the bar to give students a history of who Perce was, noting, “Alfred Pierce was treated in a way that was racist and discriminatory and ageist and completely inappropriate, but at the same time you don’t want to lose that story.”

George Vassos, a law student who had originally suggested renaming “The Underground” to “Alfies” in 1979 told The Journal in 2006 that the name change “had nothing to do with his height, weight, skin colour, his origin or his religion” and that it was just a fun way to celebrate the history of Queen’s.

In 2013, the club was restored to “The Underground.” As reported by a 2013 Journal article, this was primarily due to the fact that  TAPS was running a deficit and was attempting to renovate and rebrand the on-campus club. The same Journal article stated the name change came after students claimed the club negatively reflected on Pierce’s memory.

Nicola Plummer, then-AMS Vice President Operations told The Journal on the rebranding that “[The Underground is] a much easier brand and name to work with than Alfie’s — you can do any kind of theme with ‘The Underground’. I would say also because it is a non-offensive name … it’s an honest name that reflects [the venue].”

Today, students on campus are doing what they can to recognize one of Queen’s most polarizing figures. Working off a recommendation from the Principal’s Implementation Committee on Racism, Diversity and Inclusion (PICARDI), students are working towards the development of the “Alfie Pierce Student Centre for Racial Equality and Social Justice.” 

As of a Jan. 30 Senate meeting, the University Council on Anti-Racism and Equality (UCARE) is looking into a house on Albert St. as the potential location for the Alfie Pierce Centre. If they decide to proceed with the location, the Board of Trustees will vote on the name.

What started as a life of struggle in Kingston has transformed into a legacy spanning more than five decades at Queen’s. Although different stories have been told over the years about Alfie Pierce, there’s no denying Pierce left his mark on Queen’s campus.


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