Friday, 7 April 2017

"GET TO WHERE YOU'RE GOING IN A HURRY" SLEEPING CAR PORTERS & NEW DIRECTIONS FOR BLACK HISTORY IN CANADA

Since a great deal of our cohort will soon migrate to our respective internships or employment, or journey far away from the iSchool for some well-deserved rest, travel has been on my mind. Perhaps it’s the recent fervour surrounding the VIA Rail Canada150 Youth Pass, perhaps it's the feeling of chugging into the final station as we close the term, but nevertheless my brain has been fixated on travel by rail in particular. 


Source
 Like much of the African Canadian experience, the history of travel and migration is transnational, deeply nuanced, and is only recently being shared in the public forum. Stories of the underground railroad often overshadow the African-Canadian experience with travel, and so for my last African-Canadian post I want to spotlight the sleeping car porters. 

In the 1870s, the Pullman Palace Car Company introduced a new luxury line of rail cars. Train passengers were treated to the finest amenities, including access to round-the-clock service in the form of a Sleeping Car Porter.  Chosen for their servile nature, porters were originally former slaves who would be at the beck and call of white travellers.  As the role evolved in later years, it was specifically designed for and dominated by Black men. 


 “Prevailing racist attitudes held that Blacks were socially inferior to whites and were meant to work in such vocations that reinforced this attitude, such as that of the sleeping car porter. Black men from across Canada, the United States, the Caribbean and as far away as Wales and the Dutch East Indies were hired as sleeping car porters for Canadian railway companies” 


Porter with Passengers from Canadian National Railway. Source.

As Black men, porters were denied any opportunity to advance to other roles in the company. Yet, there was a certain prestige associated with the role of porter that consistently attracted Blacks to the position. One advantage of the position was that porters travelled exceptional distances, moved from city to city, keeping abreast to the latest news on both the American and Canadian borders. This physical mobility was also connected to their social mobility. Porters were also in the unique position of occupying and existing in traditionally white spaces. The train car became a complex site of racial politics that showcased the struggle for power, agency and resistance. 

The height of this resistance came with the development of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), a labour union that fought relentlessly to organize Blacks and improve conditions for porters.  An associated Ladies Auxiliary supported the Brotherhood and developed a complementary agenda that included progress in education.  Unfortunately, there isn't space to get into all the details in this post but there is a great National Film Board documentary on the topic here.


Ladies Auxiliary, Toronto Pullman Division, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1940. Source.

This past November, one of Canada's most recognized names associated with porters passed away.  Stanley G. Grizzle (1918 - 2016), the son of Jamaican immigrants, was a leader in the Toronto Canadian Pacific Railway Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Moreover, he also served in World War II with the Canadian Army Medical Corps and was an active and influential leader in labour relations, immigration policy and served as a member of the Joint Labour Committee to Combat Racial Intolerance. He was an active voice in African-Canadian Civil Rights and the recipient of numerous awards. 


Governor General Michaelle Jean & Stanley G. Grizzle. Source.

I have always been fascinated by the ways in which roles that are deemed subservient are actually incredibly subversive, and I’d argue that sleeping car porters and porter agency exemplify this case.  In many ways the story of sleeping car porters is one that challenged representations of Blacks and Blackness.  One of my favourite examples of this can be found on the Virtual Museum of Canada website.

The plaque (seen below) originally hung inside one of Grizzle's sleeping cars. 

"Every porter was in charge of one sleeping car on a train. Because of at times, the demeaning names they were called by passengers, such as "George" or "boy," porters won the right in their first collective agreement with CP Rail in 1945 to have plaques erected in each car stating their name"



Stanley G. Grizzle Plaque  Source.
After years of misrepresentation and oversight, I'm excited about the ways in which the stories and the contributions of African-Canadians have been made visible and are represented in museums.  One prospect I am especially looking forward to is the exhibit Free Black North which opens next month at the Art Gallery of Ontario. There is much work to do to further integrate African Canadian history into the Canadian museological landscape. Fortunately, efforts are not slowing down. The number of exhibitions covered here in this column and the numerous others that did not receive adequate recognition are encouraging signs that this work will continue.  It is especially encouraging that new directions for Black history in Canada are not limited to one route, but rather this exploration is taking place under new conductors through roads less travelled and through intersectional terrain. 

It has been my pleasure to share the phenomenal work going on in the museum world related to Black history.  

Until our paths cross again…


                                          

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