#732 Race, rails, and Hogan’s Alley
They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada
by Cecil Foster
Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2019
$22.95 / 9781771962612
Reviewed by John Douglas Belshaw
For Black History Month Canada (February 1- 20, 2020) we present John Belshaw’s review of Cecil Foster’s They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada (Biblioasis, 2019), a book that helps explain, according to Belshaw, why Vancouver’s Black community of Hogan’s Alley formed a few blocks from the adjacent transcontinental terminals of Canadian National Railways (now Pacific Central Station) and the Great Northern Railway (Union Station, demolished in 1965) — Ed.
I winced a little when I saw “untold story” in the title. Too often that phrase signals a narrative that is known to quite a few but comes as news to the author. Not the case here. This is a story that needs telling and it is one I’ve not encountered before.
From 1909 the role of railway sleeping car porter — the folks who served passengers on the once-rather-grand carriages of this country — was filled exclusively by Black men. This situation arose (and I simplify here) from the near-monopoly held by the “Pullman service” imported from the USA. George Pullman wanted to deliver an experience that echoed the style of hospitality in grand Southern mansions. A key part of that was the male servant: Black and ubiquitously known as “George.” The Pullman Corporation franchised-out their services to railway companies across North America, including the Canadian Pacific, the Canadian National, and various other lines. This came at a time when railway travel was the principal if not the only means by which humans could travel comfortably from city to city and over longer distances. So it came to pass that “George” was encountered in his hundreds from coast to coast and from decade to decade: carrying bags, serving drinks, and setting up beds while carriages swayed gently down the tracks. It was a job for Black men and only Black men need apply.
Two other forces were involved in the creation and perpetuating of this racialized work: government and organized labour. The former deftly avoided extending civic and legal rights to Black Canadians generally and to railway porters specifically while reeling in what opportunities existed. By the mid-1920s, there were legally enshrined colour-bars in place. Organized labour, for its part, ensured that the porters’ aspirations for jobs as conductors or station managers or any other task on the railways — let alone beyond the railways — would be contained.
Now, some of this is familiar territory. Any Vancouverite who knows about Hogan’s Alley will know that the Black enclave sprang up where it did because of its nearness to the railway stations. It was a community sustained mainly by the wages (and not-to-be-sneezed-at tips) earned by porters. That narrative, however, freezes the community in amber and this is where the “untold story” comes into play.
Cecil Foster (a professor at SUNY in Buffalo) engages the porters across a century and shows how their conditions and lives changed — and how they demonstrated agency in making those changes occur. He has nothing to say about Hogan’s Alley itself, but he shows us a Canadian community of Black men and women linked by steel: a tight, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and active network which had critical common denominators. Exposure to racist policies as regards immigration and work was one set of shared experiences; the Canadian Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was another.
Given the limited work options, a spell or a lifetime as a porter was in the cards for a significant share of Black men in Canada. This gave their union a special role: it spoke for its members and it could speak for the Black community as a whole. In 1954 the Brotherhood presented their varied concerns as a delegation to Ottawa. This is the moment on which Foster’s tale hinges and to which he returns repeatedly. Early on in the book the device seems forced, but its logic emerges with some vigour later on. Gradually it emerges that the journey of Black Canadians came from many directions.
I learned three things from this book. First, the role played in this country’s labour and immigration history by West Indians and West Indian governments is substantial. Likewise, visions of a federation between Canada and the West Indies. Canada officially welcomed immigrants from the West Indies, provided they were British subjects — a category that Ottawa defined so that it included only whites. We may fruitfully add these tactics to a list of immigration constraints that includes the Head Tax, the continuous voyage requirement, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement. West Indian politicians objected; West Indian immigrants submitted pleas to allow family reunification in Canada; expansionist Canadian politicians in the post-WWII period toyed with forging a presence in the Caribbean (whilst they were annexing Newfoundland). Each of these efforts stumbled because of the “race issue.” Not much changed before the 1960s.
Second, the nature of the porters’ work is described in depth and — as is often the case with jobs that outwardly seem straightforward — one comes away impressed and of a mind that whatever they’re paid, it’s just not enough. Suffice to say that it is exhausting work with brutally long hours from which every other category of railway worker was protected. And yet it is almost entirely a social job. Some porters became so well known on certain routes that captains of industry and high-ranking politicians knew them by (their real) names and spoke up on their behalf. Any student of the history of work will enjoy and be enlightened by this aspect of the book.
The third element that deserves underlining is the problematic relationship between the Brotherhood on the one hand and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) and the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transportation and General Workers Union (CRTGWU) on the other. At the head of both the CCL and the CRTGWU was Aaron Mosher, a workplace segregationist who sought to contain the porters and their ambitions for upward workplace and social mobility. (He was also hostile to “international” — that is, American-based — unions, such as the Brotherhood.) Like many in the Canadian labour movement and in the larger Canadian society, Mosher understood Canada as a white nation that would only invite the “Negro question” if the Black population were to increase or become, shall we say, comfortable (p. 22). Historians of the labour movement would do well to read this account.
Against these significant accomplishments, there are shortcomings. Professor Foster’s background is more sociological than historical, and it shows in his approach to the research. He does sterling work in the archives but spends insufficient time with the secondary literature. How I wish a Canadian historian had been given the chance to read the manuscript, for there are mistakes, a rather weak understanding of historic chronology, and nothing in the way of a literature review. He does not tell us where this book stands in discussions of Black history in Canada. I scoured the endnotes and — I may have missed it — I cannot see a reference to the 1996 NFB film, The Road Taken, which tells a rather large chunk of this porters’ story. What’s more, the film gives the mainstage to African-Canadian and American porters — the West Indian figures on whom Professor Foster focuses just aren’t there. Does this indicate divisions within the Black community as a whole? Is this “untold story” an attempt to reclaim some of that spotlight for West Indian immigrants?
Professor Foster is an expert on multiculturalism (as policy and lived experience) and he wrestles with its implications, but it is a well-ploughed field and some recognition of what others have made of these questions is missing. There’s a longish section on Robert Knox — he was the physician who purchased freshly-killed cadavers from Burke and Hare — who is quoted at length for his racist theories promulgated in the first half of the nineteenth-century; if this widely discredited surgeon’s views had any influence on Wilfrid Laurier, it needs to be shown and not just asserted. Ostensibly a national study, They Call Me George doesn’t show much awareness of the West or the far west: Tiki Bar notwithstanding, the Waldorf on East Hastings has never been one of Vancouver’s “leading hotels” (p. 214). Labour historians will be rewarded for reading this book and they will be frustrated as well: Professor Foster ignores flags related to agency, passive resistance as a kind of protest, managerial paternalism, Fordism, industrial unionism, and business unionism. He also claims that the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was the “political arm” of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) (p. 113).
After a half-century of polite protest and respectful petitions to men in power, conditions for the porters began to improve. New labour laws in the 1950s and changes in the leadership and tenor of the emergent CLC helped. So, too, did the decline of passenger railways. Post-WWII automobilism stole the spotlight from railway workers; passenger-carrying infrastructure entered a long-term slide from which it has yet to recover (pp. 241-2). The porters’ victories may have been pyrrhic but those that were won for wider human and civil rights were not.
Some of the greatest momentum in this struggle takes place in the Diefenbaker years. He was possibly the last Prime Minister to care much about railway workers, including the porters. Dief was also the last one to ride the rails regularly, which accounts for his extensive familiarity with porters, conductors, and other railway employees. Some Prime Ministers fare worse in this story. Laurier in particular comes in for deserved criticism. In a roundabout way, so does the current resident of Sussex Drive. He might want to listen to the Black porters who, in 1956, plainly detailed their opposition to the then-popular “minstrel shows,” many of which were hosted by churches (pp. 255-6). More than sixty years ago, they were speaking out against blackface. There really is no excuse.
John Douglas Belshaw, Ph.D., FRHistS, is a history professor at Thompson Rivers University — Open Learning. Among other accomplishments, he is the co-author, with his colleague and spouse Diane Purvey, of Vancouver Noir: 1930-1960 (Anvil, 2011) and the editor of Vancouver Confidential (Anvil, 2014). Belshaw makes his home in Vancouver’s East End where he does academic stuff and dabbles in fiction.
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