Small Island Montreal 1910 Version.

Booker T. Washington pic from Wikipedia. Public Domain.

In 1906, Marion Nicholson wrote home from McGill Normal School telling her Mom about ‘a field trip’ taken by her class: “Dr. Robins (Principal) let us all out early to go to hear Booker Washington. He was great. If I could only see you I could make you laugh for a few minutes at least repeating his jokes.”

Booker T. Washington was invited by the McGill YMCA to speak, primarily to students, at St. James Methodist Church. According to an article in the Montreal Gazette the speech was originally to be given at Strathcona Hall at McGill but the demand for seats proved too great.

Marion Nicholson, as I have mentioned, was a teacher at Royal Arthur School, which was in the Little Burgundy area of South Montreal.

Although she never mentions her students or their parents in letters, except to call them ‘my very bad children” some of them must have been the children of black citizens, who worked on the railroad and lived around St. Antoine Street. In a 1911 letter, Norman Nicholson mentions being waited on by a coloured porter on a trip on the CPR.

Once again, I entered the term “negro” into Google News Archives for 1908-1913 to see what I’d find in the Montreal Gazette.

Well, very interesting. There were stories aplenty about the “negro problem” in the paper, a host of sensational stories, about race wars and slayings and lynchings and burnings at the stake, mostly in the South.

Booker T. Washington in a speech widely reported condemned ‘the criminal negro’ and wanted him gotten rid of “making allowances for mistakes, injustices, and racial prejudices.”

President Taft was doing his best to put a postive spin on the Negro’s place in America, while the Supreme Court was trying to decide what exactly ‘constituted a negro.” 1/16th negro blood, it seems.

But in Canada, all was well, supposedly: Canada was free from the negro problem…Except there was this newspaper report: In the Canadian Pacific Railway Office, some workers failed to turn up one morning as a result of “the introduction of the colour line were it doesn’t belong.” A West Indian telegrapher, a twenty year veteran of the CPR, a man named Meddley had been promoted to Assistant Traffic Chief as he was next in seniority. Thus the protest, and many others at the company were threatening to strike.

Hmm.

And of course, there were the minstrel shows, in Vaudeville houses and in Dominion Park, as I’ve written about. And Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out in 1910, one of the first long feature films. (According to Wikipedia, it was the most filmed story of the era and Rev. Hugh Peddley described the story (in a 1908 Montreal speech) as proof that the theatre could be an effective moral agent, sometimes, rarely, that is.)And also the fights. There was a famous fight, the Johnson-Jeffries fight, very highly publicized and very controversial, in 1910, which was also captured on film. Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion and Mr. Jeffries came out of retirement to “re-claim the title for the white race.” (I got that from Wikipedia.) He lost. The film has been saved by the American Film Institute, as a rare and important cultural document.

When the fight film was released, in NY Vaudeville houses and not 5 and 10 cent motion picture houses so women and children wouldn’t see it, the New York Daily Mirror commented on the efforts to censor it, in the US and across the world by quoting another New York Paper:”The New York World editorially notes a striking phase of the prohibition of the Johnson-Jeffries fight pictures is that the opposition flourishes in those countries where white men are engaged in governing black men without their consent. Strange, isn’t it, that so many white men throughout the world should tremble so at one husky black man’s pugilistic victory over a white man? And it is the film story of the event that is feared most – an unconscious acknowledgement of the power of the motion picture!”

A few years ago I attended a QAHN (Quebec Anglo Heritage Network) workshop and wrote this about the History of Montreal’s Black Community.

Historian Dorothy Williams, author of A Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal (1997) told the audience about the long, difficult but proud history of the Black Community in Montreal (not an homogenous group, by any means). Slavery (using Blacks and Aboriginals) existed in Quebec in the 1700’s, but that practice ended in the late 1700’s, just before official American abolition. Many Black citizens of the time were free men.

French Canadians often inter-married with Blacks (as well as with aboriginals). When the railway was being built, black labour was brought in, with a Black Community (homes and service businesses) rising up in the West End, near the railway yards. Eventually Black men were relegated to the lower paid jobs on the railway, redcap and porter. A plaque exists in Windsor Station to commemorate their contribution. When Norman travels first class in 1911 a Black porter prepares his berth.

In 1902 the Coloured Women’s Club was founded to provide social and cultural aid to the expanding community (much like the St. Andrew’s Society.) The Union United Church was founded in 1907 because Blacks were not welcome in other churches and became home to the world-famous Jubilation Choir. Montreal’s Jazz scene hopped in the twenties, with Americans (both musicians and tourists) coming up to party, because Montreal was definitely not dry. (There are many illustrious Montreal Jazz Musicians. See: Oscar Peterson, Oliver Jones, Charlie Biddle.) In the 40’s, Nova Scotia Blacks came to Montreal and in the 60’s Caribbean women, brought in to work as domestics (even if they were professionals) greatly increased the size of Montreal’s Black Community. (Read the book Small Island. It’s about England but it resonates. It’s also one of my favorite novels.)

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