Hey Porter
by Cecil Foster


Ernest Anderson playing an (uncredited) sleeping-car porter in the 1945 film Lady on a Train.

Most of us recognize them from the odd period movie clip, bedecked in their black-and-white uniforms, special caps, and pocket watches; their ever-present, mile-wide smiles. They flit in and out of these shots like shadows: here helping a passenger to climb aboard a train; there serving a drink from a tray; acting as tourist guides by pointing out features of the landscape to the family entrusted to their care. They are always the happiest faces on the train. “Just these two bags, porter, and there’s a dollar for you. What merry, merry fellows these darky porters are, anyway!” Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock wrote in his 1917 book, Frenzied Fiction.

They are no longer on the trains, those fixtures from the days, generations ago now, when train travel was a luxury in North America. But memory of the so-called Pullman porters who, for almost a century from the 1860s onwards, were considered indispensable to passenger rail travel in North America, remains strong. For the first six decades of the last century, Black porters were the faces passengers saw most often when travelling by train in Canada. Canadian Pacific Rail offered a Pullman franchise service, so its porters were called “Pullmen.” The government-owned Canadian National Railway offered its own service, which was effectively an imitation of Pullman’s. But whether the real service or a copy, one element of it was central: it was offered almost exclusively by Black men, whose treatment of the passengers had to be uniformly first class and undifferentiated, according to detailed, written regulations. Breaching these regulations was the ultimate career-destroying move.

Maybe some day we’ll put up a monument to Stanley Grizzle (1918–2016), who worked for twenty years as a sleeping-car porter—the only job open to him as a young Black man—and who used that position to help turn Canada into a country with a reputation for ethnic and racial tolerance and cultural acceptance. It’s not an overstatement to say that appreciating the role played by social-change agents like Grizzle and other sleeping-car porters is necessary to a full understanding of the contemporary Black presence in Canada and how Canada became an officially multicultural country. Theirs is one of many untold stories among the makers of modern Canada.

Stanley Grizzle serving overseas during the war.

Grizzle’s co-authored 1998 memoir, My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, is a pioneering work on Canadian civil rights struggles. Grizzle intended the book as a record of how he personally overcame racial marginalization and fought for human rights and equity in Canada through his leadership of a Toronto chapter of the international union for sleeping-car porters. But if there was an overarching theme to his activities it was citizenship; he wanted only a single kind: one where all were equal and recognized as fully Canadian while remaining proud members of whatever ethnic or social group they belonged to. This is what’s generally referred to as “multicultural citizenship,” something associated with Canada’s status as the first officially multicultural country.

Grizzle fought not just to assert his rights as a man—and specifically as a Black man—but to ensure that all people were treated humanely. Being referred to by a name of one’s own choosing was key to his thinking, as he believed it had a profound effect on others’ perceptions. The title of Grizzle’s book refers to the fact that, in his day, white passengers—being unable (or unwilling) to tell them apart—referred to all Black porters as “George.” In their eyes, the latter were just another form of undifferentiated help. Service and the service provider were indistinguishable, homogenous—a perception that was of a kind with the notion that Black people the world over lived existences based on group traits, as opposed to individual choices and decisions. The porters were seen, like their slave ancestors, to have no individuality; to be the property of someone else with no social standing on their own. The name “George” came from George Pullman, the American businessman who, through his practice of primarily hiring former slaves and their descendants in the latter part of nineteenth century, developed a unique type of domestic service for train passengers across North America. From then, the porters were simply known as “George” or “George’s Boy”—a double-barrel blast of deprecation since the possessive George’s smacked of slave-era ownership and boy to the paternalism of a white society where Black men were perceived as childlike and incapable of becoming responsible men. Grizzle and his colleagues resented, indeed bristled at such demeaning labels.

The porters and other marginalized groups didn’t just demand to be called by the names of their personal choice (some would subversively suggest to passengers who called them George that they might have mistaken them for another brother) they also insisted on being recognized as fully Canadian, owned by nobody but themselves. Working for an employer was not the same as being owned—and this distinction had to be made very clear for a group of individuals who collectively lived the still-fresh legacy of chattel slavery. The alternative to multicultural citizenship was what Grizzle was born into—an alienating, exclusionary citizenship in a de facto White Man’s Country where non-whites like Grizzle would never be recognized as equal to white Canadians.

The majority of his battles were waged on the side of the poor and alienated; from the 1950s onwards there was hardly a civil rights fight in Canada in which Grizzle was not involved, and he travelled the country tirelessly preaching the benefits of multiculturalism well past his retirement. Nor were the causes he espoused limited to his native land. He demonstrated and protested the world’s social injustices—including Canadian involvement with South African apartheid and African liberation struggles—on the streets of cities across the country. Grizzle wanted these stories recorded and presented to all Canadians from the perspective of someone who’d been in the battle trenches both figuratively and literally. In Grizzle’s day, not only did Black people have to fight to be accepted into the Canadian Armed forces, once admitted they had to fight against the perception they were only good for menial tasks. In 1942, Grizzle left his porter job for a time to serve in the Second World War, but he went on strike when Canadian Army brass assigned him the demeaning duties they reserved for Black army members, like cleaning and disposing of the so-called honey buckets from field outhouses or serving as butlers for senior officers. He won his protest and was later assigned regular duties.

Grizzle’s book is now out of print and almost impossible to find, even on the internet, where a book can nearly always be acquired for the right price (at the time of this writing, three copies, averaging $370, were available from various international sellers via Amazon). The scarcity is largely due to the fact that Grizzle’s book, like the memoirs of many other Canadian Black historical figures, including community organizers Bromley Armstrong and Wilson Head, was self-published. Others, like hockey great Herb Carnegie and MPP and Ontario Lieutenant Governor Lincoln Alexander, were published by small houses, with most of the editing undertaken by the authors themselves along with a few friends. This is a problem even at the academic level, where there are still too few publications on the Black Canadian experience. For example, for the longest while The Blacks in Canada: A History by American historian Robin Winks and a mere few other books by such scholars as noted Canadian historian James W. St. G. Walker, were the seminal publications of the Black Canadian experience. Decades ago, when he was a young scholar, the acclaimed poet and academic George Elliott Clarke compiled a collection of sermons, speeches, letters, and writings by Black Canadians from Maritime Canada for Fire on the Water, a badly need two-volume anthology. He too had to self-publish the work. The independent Halifax publisher Fernwood recently published some important works, including the biographies of Canadian civil-rights pioneers Burnley (Rocky) Jones and Viola Desmond.

Before Grizzle, there was Harry Gairey (1898–1993), a former porter and leading Black activist who mentored Grizzle and others and who helped to shape Canada into a multicultural country, not just demographically but through the preservation of stories previously not considered stereotypically Canadian. Gairey, too, had to self-publish his memoir, A Black Man’s Toronto, 1914-1980, with the help of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario. The publication’s editor, Donna Hill, a civil-rights activist (Hill is the mother of Canadian cultural icons Dan and Lawrence Hill), writes in her introduction: “The recollections of Harry Gairey, a senior statesman of the Toronto Black community, do much to extend our history beyond its traditional boundaries. During our lengthy interviews he covered the experience of Black immigrants from the early 1900s to the present: the development of their community; the relationship between Canadian-born Blacks and immigrants; immigration legislation and policy; and the kind of discriminatory treatment Blacks encountered in their daily life.” Hill, who worked with porters like Grizzle and Gairey and who had the prescience to record their experiences, made these observations in the 1980s and they are just as perceptive today.

A Pullman advertisement from 1945.

These examples reflect a shameful truth about established and mainstream Canadian publishing, which, until recently, has not found much room for diversity in its front or backlists. As a result, many Canadian stories remain largely untold. They also point to the limits non-white citizens still face—limits Grizzle fought against and even reached deep into his pockets to undermine. His book remains a subversive act in that it protests the lack of equality of opportunity for those Canadians without full access to the country’s cultural tools and expressions. High-school and university students might be aware that people who look like them once struggled to produce a better Canada, but these students still have great difficulty finding the books confirming these stories and conferring hero status to their activist precursors. The Canadian Human Rights Museum’s entry on the sleeping-car porters, for example, is notably brief and basic. If Canada’s official narrative is that of a country where all voices and stories are equally valid, those of Black Canadians have nevertheless been largely overlooked or left out.

As Canada enters a period of wider reconciliation in which erstwhile excluded groups like First Nations and Black Canadians are included in the official narrative, it is crucial that all groups be empowered to tell their own stories. For multiculturalism to become a success and a reality, it’s also crucial that Grizzle’s and the sleeping-car porters’ stories move from the margins of culture to the mainstream.

Researching the lives of train porters requires hunting down these self-published works. Grizzle, thankfully, had the foresight to donate mounds of his personal papers—which include decades of collected news clippings, speeches, photographs of just about any bit of information of significance that he came across on Black Canadian life—to the Canadian Public Archives in Ottawa. For this alone he deserves a monument. The foresight of people like Donna Hill and Grizzle will allow future writers, scholars, and readers to appreciate a dark period in Canadian history when segregation ruled, and when sleeping-car porters were the chief sufferers of these Jim Crow practices. Not only were Black activists forced to make history by demanding changes, they had to write themselves into that history’s record of struggles and achievement simply because the mainstream would not.

For Black communities across North America, the porters will always be an essential part of a legacy of human rights and community development. They were often outstanding members of their own communities; many were intellectuals, by inclination and training, who would emerge from segregation to become some of the first Blacks to become white-collar professionals like lawyers, civil servants, and business people. They included, too, a significant number of university students who came to Canada from the Caribbean to study and who worked as porters during the peak Christmas and summer periods.

Well into the 1960s, Black immigrants unfamiliar with social patterns intended to keep people like them in their place would seek work in department stores or government offices only to be told that the railways were hiring. And indeed, the railways were always hiring Black men since very few porter jobs were permanent. Those in their late teens and twenties were hired as “spares,” which meant they had no seniority or claim to a job. They worked when the railways needed them, and if the railways never called, then they never worked. Making porters compete for jobs with no security guarantee was in fact part of a strategy by the railways to ensure the service they offered would always be at the high levels advertised.

In many ways, it was less a job than a performance. In the porters’ world, the passenger was undisputed king or queen: any complaint, for whatever reason, could lead to demerit points and, eventually, lost work opportunities in future. Another reason the porters had to execute the highest performance was to secure that much-needed tip at the end of each trip. Salaries were deliberately kept low, making the porters almost totally dependent on the gratuities that allowed them to build houses, feed and clothe their families, and maintain a modicum of the good life. Because they represented, in many ways, the ultimate Black stereotype, Pullman porters became a target for human-rights activists who wanted to give Black people access to a full range of jobs and professions within the Canadian economy. They also wanted to break Black people’s monopoly by making porter jobs available to all social groups. Doing so would also release Black employees from the perception that they could only do one type of work and were thus effectively still working “on the plantation.”

For those travelling on Via Rail or just about any other railway across North America today, there is hardly any sign of this past exclusivity, for portering or working on the roads—as their jobs were described up to a generation ago—has long ceased to be Black man’s work. Today, porters come in all colours and genders and speak many languages—just like Canada itself—an achievement for which thousand of Black men worked since the beginning of the last century. Their aim was always to destroy the Jim Crow restrictions that limited Black men to working only as sleeping- and parlour-car porters. They fought against the idea of Canada as White Man’s Country, open only to immigrants from Europe, with a preference for Anglo-Saxons. And they fought for a Canada that provided equal opportunities for all citizens regardless of colour, race, gender, sexual orientation or any other social classification that led to marginalization.

Canada has certainly become more inclusive of non-white peoples. As other modes of transportation have broken the lock trains once had on passenger travel, train service itself has also changed. And the ethnicity, race, and gender of the those who work on the trains is no longer an issue. In these regards, at least, the ideals of Canadian multiculturalism have largely been fulfilled. And this is why we should ensure that recognition also flows to those who, from their position of outsiders, fought at great personal sacrifice to make Canada so much more inclusive. Stalwarts like Grizzle would undoubtedly argue that Canada has not yet arrived at the final destination of equality and full recognition for all citizens as Canadians. And this is a major reason why we have to give pride of place to the struggles of Canada’s sleeping-car porters, who imagined Canada as ultimately a dream come true—a place where race should never matter. The story of Canada’s Black porters is a Canadian story well worth telling.

—From CNQ 101 (Winter 2018)

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