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They Call Me George

They Call Me George

The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada
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Excerpt from They Call Me George

Sitting in his condominium apartment in Halifax, Harold Adams is at ease with the life he has built for himself and his family and with most of the recent progress of his country. But this was not always the case. “I don’t know how many times I came home and said I am not going back, this work is not for me,” he says as he passes out a cup of tea, perhaps with the same care that he would have offered such service to a stranger over the 35 years of working as a porter on Canada national passenger railway. Now he sits in the apartment among some of the memorabilia that resulted from the long years of service and with fellow retired porter Thornton William and life-long friend Michael Tynes reminisce about life on the road and what has become of Canada.

“When we were growing up as kids we always saw the porters when they got in from a trip,” recalls Tynes with a chuckle. “They were the best dressed guys around, they drove the cars and they had the nicest homes.”

“Well, not all porters had homes,” Adams chides gently, reminding that life was not that kind and equal to everyone working as porters on the railways. “But those that did, I used to think they were members of government, members of parliament, some official, ’cause we would always see them when they were dressed up and when they were leaving to go to work. But after they got to work, and after I got on the railway I learned that when they went to work they changed their clothes into a uniform, a white jacket with a collar that went around the neck, and I don’t like to say it but some people refer to them as monkey hats, and you had to wear that when you were on the job. In those days, you’d see very few Black people travelling in sleeping cars because it was too expensive; if they did travel the coach would be the best they could afford at that time. I am going back to the time when I first got onto the train like it was CNR then... After they made it VIA Rail.”

Williams too remembers seeing the porters around town. “There was this fellow that I didn’t quite know what he did. His name was Walter. I would see Walter around town and Walter was always well dressed and always had a little brief case with him and I kept thinking he was a lawyer. And it wasn’t until years later that I got to realize he was porter.”

Adams signed on to work on the passenger service for Canadian National railway in 1962. He found that when travelling away from home he would stay in private homes as was the case in Montreal where as many as 16 porters might share the bunk beds in the same room on the second floor of a home. “When I first went there, only Blacks stayed there but whites did not. When I first got there that was the way the porters lived. Whites working on the trains were waiters, stewards, conductors and cooks and they stayed elsewhere.” Segregation of Black and white workers was prevalent. “In Canada segregation existed all over. Even with government jobs, there were very few Blacks until around the 60s or late 50s, when Blacks started to get into the dockyards, but even when they did it was like porters….The reputations of us Blacks in general was that we were supposed to be good singers, good cooks, and good cleaners. And that existed in all Canada.”

Over a generation, these retirees have witnessed life changing somewhat for Black people in Canada. There are now more job opportunities available to Black Canadians, not like when they were teenagers. “In the days prior to us, Nova Scotia like other places in Canada was very prejudice jobwise,” Adams recalls. “We had men that went to high school and the best thing they could get, the best job they could get was working on the train. And Blacks in general, especially men, we got spread across Canada mostly from Nova Scotia. What they would do to recruit was to come down to Halifax, down in the valley the small places, and anybody that wanted to work and was capable of making beds, it wasn’t in those days hard work, but they took them and sent right across to Vancouver. In those days, there were very few Blacks living in upper Canada, like Calgary and Winnipeg and those places. They would take them across to live.”

The recruiters would also visit the British colonies in the Caribbean in search of porters for the railways and seamen for Canadian ships—oftentimes the recruits working on both the rails and ships. Elombe Mottley, son of a popular politician in Barbados in the first half of last century recalls in an interview: “When my father was growing up, even when I was a boy going to school in the late 1940s, you could always tell who was a seaman because his children always wore a gold plated watch, cause to own a watch in those days was a big thing.” One particular porter was popular in those days for his community mindedness, a man with the nickname Zephyr who coached boxing to the boys. When came the time for Mottley to plan for the rest of his life, he came to Canada to study medicine at the University of Manitoba in 1958, arriving in Canada knowing that like so many West Indian students before him he could supplement his income and get to see the rest of North America by working summers and winters as a sleeping car porter. Eventually Mottley decided to return to the Caribbean.

Canada became a confederation in 1867 and its history since then can be measured in how successful men like Adams, Williams and Tynes were able to make homes for themselves and their families in this country. Theirs is part of the story of a struggle to change Canada and to make it a place where Black boys and girls could grow up knowing that they have freedom of opportunity to become full fledged Canadians. This then is a story of the struggle for the recognition of dignity and for citizenship.

Let’s presume that in this country we are all fully human, something that wasn’t always a given for people with Black skins or African ancestry. As a meaningful description, then, our greatest characteristic is our dignity: it’s the basis on which we act out the bond we call citizenship. As a basic building block for our social interactions, dignity is what we all have in common, what in our human diversity makes us all equal. As citizens of this specific country, we recognize all fellow members as possessing this dignity, of agreeing to common and preferred ways of collectively acting out our basic humanity in solidarity and fraternity. What make us unique as a nation-state is the particular ways we recognize a common dignity in every member, how we celebrate our unique humanness in a way that makes our country and the way nationals live unique. What makes Canada unique, for example, is that it is supposedly a place—an oasis as it were carved out of the rest of the world—with its peculiar practices of recognizing the dignity inherent in all citizens. This is the vaunted Canadian way.

Dignity does not reveal itself in any specific form, neither does it take any specific colour or hue; it is common across all races and ethnicities, religions and creeds, across all nationalisms, social categorizations and the lack thereof. Indistinguishable, it just exists and can be seen on the face of every human, in the way they walk, talk, play or perform any task, in the way they demand to be treated and how they treat others. Dignity is something that we can never lose, not even when incapacitated, and still be human; indeed, anyone having this dignity must de facto be human, it comes simply with possessing the human form; even the human dead is deemed to still have dignity as so many soldiers charged with war crimes have learned the hard way, or civilians going around desecrating graves and headstones. Dignity cannot be bought or sold, and its supply is not controlled by the vagaries of markets, the wealth of individuals or any other social categorization that determines statures and usefulness in any society. For in its indeterminacy dignity exists before the state intervenes and establishes social functions and the norms that go with them, before the collective or dominant will in the state starts divvying out inequalities. Dignity is a given, even if a society’s recognition of it in its members is more deliberate—often enunciated in laws, bills and charters of rights, regulations, codes, policies and practices—all determined decisions of how to treat one another in a dignified way that is so common it produces a particular culture. Ironically, dignity can only be meaningful in a society.

So if we cannot feel, taste, see, smell or hear dignity, if we cannot use our senses of description to know it, how can we claim dignity as the basis for human equality? Perhaps, we are asking the wrong question—and perhaps we err by relying on signs and symbols analogously to help us to understand something, like an assumed human nature itself, that is unquantifiable. What if we see this dignity as a social convention, a moral belief based on the idea that as human beings we have the right and ability equally to make ourselves better, and in seeking this social perfection to do so in concert with others who share the same attributes and characteristic that is dignity? Freedom, or not to be held mentally or physically in bondage or forced compulsion, seems to capture much of what we imagine dignity entails. Dignity and freedom, as ill defined conceptually as they are, bring specific expectations to mind as we think of how we would expect to be treated by others and supposedly how we should treat them. Ethically dignity would be written into our rules of engagement with one another and would govern our expectations. Citizenship would be the expression of dignity. Dignity is about existence—to be is to have it, freedom and citizenship are its vehicles. It is about acting in good faith.

In keeping with the latter thinking we would be shifting the conversation from decoding signs and symbols—such as relying on the physicality of the color of the skin, the height of the person, the differences in genitals, the language spoken—of dignity as an intangible, as an indication of a relationship between human beings who might be different in as many ways physical as they are people, but as a measurement of the bond resulting from acts of volition for sharing the same intentions and goals. Therefore, whether they are physically or ontologically equal at the beginning of the relationship is not the question of concern, but rather once they are in a relationship our worry would be whether they are treated with the same touch agreeable as common to all participants. In this respect, dignity makes us all relations, social relatives bound together in a fraternal affiliation the strength of which is the expression and actions that flow from the recognition that other fellow travellers are following the same moral and ethical commands and are bound to the same expectations. We would then be all like passengers on a train heading generally in the same direction even if specifically we board and exist at different stops, perhaps some of us even ending up at the final stop or terminus, the farthest point the train would take us.

What I have just described is the challenge undertaken by a group of people in the early part of the last century. They were attempting to shift the perception of fellow residents in their social world from one based exclusively on signs and symbols—from description—to one based on relationship among people who could be deemed to be morally entitled because of their relationship, in this case, in the exercise of nation building. The result of this attempted shift is the creation in the northernmost tip of North America, as part of an overall Western Hemisphere experience, of a country that is idealistically based not on what people look like or how they can be described physically or biologically, not even about what they do privately, but on what they share. Morally and ethically we are talking about how in fellowship people agree to treat one another, and in practice how faithful they are in keeping this agreement.

Such is the story of Canada and of the largely social outcasts, described as Black sleeping car porters, and how these workers were in the vanguard for the creation of a new and modern Canada that now presents itself to the world as a paragon of harmoniously human relations—a country that transformed itself from descriptively a White Man’s country into relationally a multicultural one, to where every Canadian is supposedly treated with human dignity presumably held in equal proportions. This is the story of how these porters came into their own as a social and political force in a very special moment in time—a story of how they changed Canada profoundly, setting it on a course that in good faith would make it idealistically a homeland for all forms of humanity.

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A Black Family’s Journey

A Black Family’s Journey

From Slums to Establishment
edition:eBook
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Isabella Sarah Euphemia Lafferty is a weighty name for a new baby, and with it the little girl carried a remembrance of her forebears. Throughout her life, she was known affectionately as Effie. Born in Guelph on 4th April, 1873, Effie was the daughter of Alfred Mitchell Lafferty and Isabella Eunice Russell Campbell. She was named after her two extraordinary grandmothers.

Effie’s maternal grandmother was Isabella Russell, who was born in Glasgow, and came to British North America as a girl. A devout Methodist, she had asked her betrothed, Laughlin Campbell, to endow the Sunday School library in Quebec rather than give her trinkets and gifts. They were married in 1826. Laughlin joined the Commissariat Department at the time of the Rebellions of 1837-8. Afterwards, he was posted to Penetanguishene, Upper Canada, where the couple moved with their four daughters. The girls were not yet 18 when Laughlin died. Jesse had married William B. Hamilton, and was living in Collingwood. Isabella took her three unmarried daughters, Isabella (Effie’s mother), Ann and Christina south to Richmond Hill. There, she established a private school for “Young Ladies” where she and her daughters Christina and Isabella taught.

Effie’s paternal grandmother was Sarah Cloud, a woman of African descent who had been born in the United States. Whether enslaved or free, it took courage to uproot, leaving family and friends, and move to a new country. We do not know what spurred Sarah to leave: bondage, abuse, or knowing that she would never have the same opportunities as white Americans. She may have been able to leave openly, or she may have spent weeks hiding, travelling at night, and relying on the occasional kindness of strangers. In Upper Canada, Sarah made a new life and a new family. In 1833, she married William Lafferty, another Black US émigré, in the little Town of York. (In 1834 it would be incorporated as the City of Toronto.) They worked hard to buy their first house on Stewart’s Lane, just east of St. James’ churchyard. It must have been exciting to see the result of their labour as an actual piece of property, even if it was in a slum area known as “the Devil’s Elbow.” Soon they invested in a second house as a rental property. And it was on Stewart’s Lane that their three sons were born: Effie’s father, Alfred, and his two brothers. Hard work allowed Sarah and William to buy more properties, move to a better area, open a provision business, then a grocery store, and buy a farm in the fertile agricultural township of Etobicoke. Best of all, they could give their four children (they had a daughter, too) a good education – something Sarah and William had been denied in the United States.

Euphemia was also a Campbell family name. Effie’s well-educated parents doubtless knew that this Greek name means “well-spoken.” It was uncommon in England, but had gone in and out of fashion in Scotland. The name saw a big revival when Sir Walter Scott named a character in his 1818 novel, Heart of Midlothian, Effie Dean. Isabella and Alfred had been married at the Port Lewis, Quebec, home of her aunt, Euphemia McNicol Campbell. Euphemia McNicol had arrived in Lower Canada in 1820 as a teenager, with her family and hundreds of other Scots, probably victims of the Great Highland Clearances.

Isabella Sarah Euphemia Lafferty bore the names of three strong women who had overcome the problems in their lives. She, too, would need strength to struggle with the prejudice and personal tragedy that the future had in store.

When Effie Lafferty was born, the Lafferty family lived in Guelph, near Guelph High School on Paisley Street, where Alfred had been principal since 1872. Their house was provided by the school. Effie will have been christened at the Norfolk Street Wesleyan Methodist Church in Guelph, where her parents were active members. Alfred was on the board of the church, and had been a local preacher for several years, ministering to small communities outside the town.

In 1875, when Alfred was invited to become principal of the Wilberforce Educational Institute (WEI), the family moved to Chatham. They first lived in a rented house on King Street, near First. In August, 1877, the Laffertys purchased a house on Thames Street, at the corner of Pitt, not far from the Fifth Street bridge, and much closer to the WEI. (In 1906 the house was designated number 58.) It was a brick house with eleven rooms, and a garden that ran down to the Thames River. It sounds attractive, but neighbours included Hadley’s lumber yard and J.M. Smith’s tannery. And, unfortunately, the Thames was prone to seasonal flooding.

The Laffertys joined Park Street Methodist Church, and Effie’s parents soon became actively involved. Alfred was a member of the Quarterly Committee, and when the church had financial difficulties in November, 1881, he was asked to prepare a statement to the congregation explaining the situation. Isabella was a speaker for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and in 1902 Alfred was a delegate to the Temperance Association, on behalf of the church.

Effie’s first lessons may have been at her mother’s knee. Scots have always prized learning, and to 19th-century African Canadians, education was the first step on the road to self-reliance. This may be why Mary Ann Nazrey (widow of Willis Nazrey, first bishop of the British Methodist Episcopal church) left 17-year-old Effie a legacy of $100. Later, her uncle, William Lafferty, would leave her the residue of his estate for her “higher education at the University of Toronto.”

For her secondary education, Effie went to Chatham Collegiate Institute. She had a flare for languages, and matriculated in 1891 with “University Honors” in French and German. Following in her father’s footsteps, Effie attended University College, at the University of Toronto. (Women were first admitted in 1884.) She graduated with a BA in June 1896, at the age of 23.

September found Miss Lafferty teaching at West Tilbury School Section 4, Comber, in Essex County. This may have been the four-room brick schoolhouse remembered in a local memoir. In 1898 she moved to the larger town of Wallaceburg to take over Miss McCallum’s Grade V class of 50 students at the Wallaceburg Public School. (It is interesting to note that at the 24 November, 1898, Commencement Exercises in the Opera House, Wallaceburg’s Mayor Gordon proudly proclaimed that “the average number of pupils per teacher was higher than in any other part of the province, and the cost of maintenance per pupil being below the average.” ) The monthly school reports in The Wallaceburg News and The Wallaceburg Herald give details of Miss Lafferty’s school career, as well as personal tidbits. Wallaceburg was closer to Chatham than Comber, and in October, 1898, (we read in The Herald) Effie spent time with Chatham friends; later in the month, her mother presented a paper at the WCTU Convention in Wallaceburg. In November, Miss Lafferty helped organise the ever-popular two-night Public Schools’ Concert, which was “packed to the doors.” Twelve of her pupils were listed on the “Honor Roll” for October, and fourteen for November. The larger Wallaceburg school gave her the opportunity to teach classics to the older students.

In January, 1899, Miss Lafferty was among those laid low by “grippe” (flu). In February, she organised a “boys’ chorus” in her class, and they performed at the Students’ Literary Association. By August, Effie’s substitute position seems to have become permanent, and she taught a Grade VII class through 1899-1900. At the October Commencement in 1899, she presented the certificates for “Model Drawing” and “Memory and Blackboard Drawing.”

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