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Demanding Our Rights: WWII to 1960s

WWII – A Turning Point

When Canada entered World War II, officials again moved to bar Black men from any involvement. The latter protested and eventually secured the right to enlist. This time they were not segregated into a special construction unit, but were allowed to fight alongside white soldiers.

Men from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries also enlisted in the Canadian armed forces. After the war, these soldiers were able to apply for landed immigrant status.

Ironically, it was Canada’s entry into WWII that first opened the doors of opportunity – if only just a crack – for Canadian women and racialized minorities. Black Canadians, who had been shut out of industry after industry for decades, began to take the positions left behind by servicemen who fought overseas.

A Crack in the Door of Opportunity

The Ford plant in Windsor hired its first full-time employees of African descent in the 1940s. Black women worked alongside white women in factories and munitions plants across the country. It was a hopeful beginning. 

Many other Black workers remained in the same types of jobs they had always held.

Headshot of a young woman looking down and to her left.

Geraldine Carter.
York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC06634.

Headshot of a train Porter.

Percy Cornelius Jewell, of Guelph, Ontario, worked as a porter for Canadian Pacific Railway for many years. Pictured here in 1946.
Melba Jewell Collection, 1988.33.1, Courtesy of Guelph Museums, Guelph, Ontario.

Black Canadians and Labour Unions

For the first time, African Canadians became involved in labour unions, fighting for better wages and working conditions. 

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was an all-Black union that is one of the great success stories in Canadian Black history.  In 1942, under the brilliant tutelage of African American labour leader A. Philip Randolph, it established divisions in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg (and later Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver), and on May 18, 1945 it signed its first collective agreement with CP Rail. With this agreement, porters’ wages and time off were increased and their total hours on the job were reduced. This marked the first time that a trade union organized by and for Black men signed an agreement with a Canadian company. 

The Movement for Civil Rights

With the relaxation of employment barriers due to the war, African Canadians began a more concerted struggle for civil rights. The attitude had become, “if they can hire us in wartime, they can hire us anytime!” 

As a result of the pressure put on the provincial Ministry of Health and nursing schools by such groups as the Hour-A-Day Study Club of Windsor and the Toronto Negro Veterans Association, Black women were finally admitted for training and gradually employed in hospitals across Ontario by the late 1940s-early 1950s.

In the days before the street protests of the 1960s, African Canadians wrote letters, held meetings, sent delegations to Queen’s Park and Ottawa and staged sit-ins to protest their treatment. They aligned with progressive labour, religious and civil liberties groups. 

As a result of these actions, the Fair Employment Practices Act (1951) outlawed discrimination in employment and the Fair Accommodation Practices Act (1954) made discrimination in public accommodations illegal. When companies flouted the law, Black people directly tested their right to eat in restaurants, sit in movie theatres, skate at local rinks or rent the housing of their choice. Some companies were prosecuted and fined as a result. They started to get the message.

Headshot of a young nurse in uniform.

Nurse Marissa Scott
Grey County Museum, Owen Sound, Ontario

Earl Walls from Puce, Ontario
Allen Eugene Walls, Essex County, Ontario

Breaking Loose

Just as the lindy hop and jitterbug broke loose of traditional dance forms, so too, African Canadians began to break loose of the racist restrictions that had kept them down. Community and cultural activities continued to play an important role in people’s lives.  

As always, the community would produce those whose excellence and achievement could not be denied. However, many would still make the trek south to the United States.  By contrast, the Canadian government – under pressure from the Black community to ease immigration restrictions – moved to admit Caribbean nurses and other professionals in the 1950s under the “exceptional merit” clause of the Immigration Act.  

Audio Program

Listen: WWll to 1960 Introduction. Click on the play circle below
Show/Hide Transcript

The Second World War and its aftermath presented a period of renewed hope for African Canadians. The draft and enlistment of thousands of Canadian men, and some women as well, left the factories with a need for labour. Factories which manufactured equipment, ammunition, and other war needs were also looking for labourers to fill their requirements. African Canadians, women, and other groups filled this need, bringing them into the mainstream workforce for the first time.

In the meantime, as during the First World War, African Canadians attempted to enlist in the army and air force. At the beginning of the war, some were turned away, but by 1940-41, African Canadians were part of the draft movement to recruit soldiers. However, some branches of the service were still viewed as off-limits.

Listen: Mr. Braithwaite. Click on the play circle below
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Part 1

Jim Braithwaite, just a teenager when the war broke out, describes what happened when his brother Daniel went down to the recruiting office to enlist in the Air Force:

“What happened back in 1940, my brother Danny wanted to join the Air Force, so he went down to the recruitment office in Toronto and they told him at the time that they weren’t recruiting any more people because the quote had been reached and it would probably be open again in another month. So, Danny came back home and the next day, ads in the paper again wanting young men to join the Air Force, so he knew that something was going on.”

“He went back to the recruitment office in a week’s time and at that time they said no, they’re not recruiting at the time, but they have him on a list and they’ll let him know. My brother said to them, ‘what happens if I get conscripted within the next month or so? What do I do?’ They said, ‘Oh don’t worry, if you get conscripted you come back to us and we will get you into the Air Force.’ He says, ‘Sure, yes, that’s fine.’

So my brother went home and after two months, sure enough, he got a letter saying he was conscripted into the army. So he went back to the Air Force with this paper, the conscription paper, and the Air Force looked at it and said, ‘well, we’re very sorry, something happened here. We cannot take you into the Air Force because the Army is the senior service and they have priority to recruit you. So therefore you have to go through the Army because they have priority over us. Now what you can do is ask for a transfer  and perhaps, if they’re willing, they will give you a transfer.’

My brother was extremely angry after this, he knew what was going on, a pure case of discrimination. So he told them this and he said he’s not going into the Army and he’s going to make an issue of the situation. So he went back home, went to work back home for about six months, and in six months’ time the Army was looking for him. So they came to the house, they said ‘Daniel Braithwaite, where is he?’ I said ‘well, he’s at work.’ So they waited ’til he came home and they said ‘We’ve been looking for you for six months and you’re AWOL and we will have to take you in because you’re a deserter.’

My brother told the story to the military police. They were sympathetic but they could not do anything about it. In the meantime, my mother (laughs) she says ‘you’re not going to take my son’ and she takes this broom and tries to get them out of the house. It was extremely funny, ‘I was serious, you’re not touching my boy’ and they couldn’t do anything, they just waited and waited. So my brother says, ‘Don’t worry, slow your pip, let them know the story and we’ll get this thing straightened out.’ And then he told the army what happened, he got on the phone, and he called the army and explained the situation, and they said that they could not do very much at the time, but he can present his case.

In the meantime, my father phoned Ottawa because he was a CCF man, and he knew M.J. Coldwell, who was the leader of the CCF party, explained what happened, and Coldwell says he’s going to bring it up in the House of Commons what’s going on with the recruitment situation. Now, at that time, the Minister of Defence, I think his name was Mr. Power, said to M.J. Coldwell, ‘do not bring it up in the House. I can straighten out the whole situation very easily. We do not want to jeopardize the recruitment situation, particularly now that the war is just starting, we have to keep things under control.’ So, it did not get into the House of Commons, but the Minister of Defence called Toronto and apparently, the young man or whoever was in the recruitment office took it upon himself to do this.

In the meantime, my dad says to me, he says ‘they claim now that they’re hiring, that they’re recruiting everyone, as long as you’re qualified, so go down there and see if they’re telling the truth’ I had no idea of getting into the Air Force, no plans of getting into the Army or anything ‘cause I was just nineteen and I was just finishing school. I told him, ‘I don’t want to the Air Force.’ He says ‘Boy, you’ll do what I tell you!’ Well, what happened (laughs), you’ve gotta picture this, when your father’s telling you to do something, back in those days you had to do it or else you leave home. So I went down to the recruiting office and lo and behold, within an hour and a half, I was in the Air Force.”         

 Part 2

 Jim Braithwaite served as part of the ground crew which fuelled and serviced American fighter planes. Daniel Braithwaite, on the other hand, never realized his dream of serving in the Air Force.

“He never got into the Air Force, by the way. He got in the Army, and he was trying to get the transfer, and when he was in Debert, Nova Scotia, he got injured in training and they gave him an honourable discharge.”

Listen: Jackie Washington. Click on the play circle below
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Part 1 - Intro

Getting into the service was one thing, but treatment once in was quite another. Jackie Washington, Hamilton’s own jazz and blues legend, describes his experience from 1941 to 1943 when he was discharged from the army:

“The one thing, I was the only Black in that regiment, and every time—the officer would come in every day—like, you know, we had, like, a captain and a second lieutenant, you know. But every time they came in, there was a joke about being Black, about me. So I told them, I said ‘look, I don’t like this.’ ‘Aw, we’re just having fun’ I said, ‘I don’t like it,’ but it didn’t stop them anyway, they still thought they were smart. So I thought, well, I’m gonna be smart (laughs). And we get the order, we’re going out, we’re leaving basic training, number 20 in Brantford. Go to Barriefield, Kingston by train. We got there and it was a hot day. So, we’re standing in the parade square, all of our equipment on. Here comes the regimental sergeant major. The officer of the day was second lieutenant and first lieutenant, two captains, a major, a lieutenant colonel, and they were inspecting all of the troops.

So, when they get to the, they get to the end of the line, and see the guys are all standing straight, when they get to mine, they look down and Captain Black, he said something and they all started to laugh, so I was alerted, I knew then. Sure enough, when they got down to me, ‘Washington,’ I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘I see you’re not well,’ ‘I beg pardon?’ He said ‘you’re not well, you’re looking kind of pale’ and they all had a laugh. I laughed with them, yeah, sure, just go with it, they went on. So, after a while (laughs), the regimental sergeant-major said, ‘everybody for sick bay, fall on over here’ so I went on over there. Here comes the ambulance, it will take us to Kingston Military Hospital, give me a bed and everything, eat three meals a day (laughs)

About a week later, a nursing sister came in with my chart, she says, ‘Washington, I’ve got your chart here, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you.’ I said, ‘Well, I didn’t say there was anything wrong with me.’ She said, ‘well how did you come to get in here?’ I said, ‘Well, Captain Black told me that I was sick and he’s a commissioned officer and he knows far more than I’ll ever know.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘he was just joking, you’re just swinging the lead. Get your things and get the hell out of here, thank you’ (laughter)”

Jackie Washington got the last laugh when he decided to fake another illness by swallowing raisins. They appeared on the x-ray as stomach ulcers. He was immediately discharged.


Part 2 - Ration Blues

Here is Mr. Jackie Washington singing Ration Blues:

Baby, baby, baby,

What is wrong with Uncle Sam?

He's cut down on my sugar

Now he's messin' with my ham


I got the ration blues

Blue as I can be

Oh, me, I've got those ration blues


I got to live on forty ounces

Of any kind of meat

Those forty little ounces

Gotta last me all the week


I got to cut down on my jelly

It takes sugar to make it sweet

I'm gonna steal all your jelly, baby

And rob you of your meat


I got the ration blues

Blue as I can be

Oh, me, I've got those ration blues


I like to wake up in the morning

With my jelly by my side

Since rationing started, baby

You just take your stuff and hide


They reduced my meat and sugar

And rubber's disappearing fast

You can't ride no more with poppa

'Cause Uncle Sam wants my gas


I got the ration blues

Blue as I can be

Oh, me, I've got those ration blues

Listen: Wilma Morrison. Click on the play circle below
Show/Hide Transcript

Part 1 - Intro

A new militancy was building among Black men and women who got jobs for the first time in factories. They were not willing to relinquish their new positions for the menial jobs of earlier decades. Black servicemen, who had risked their lives for their country overseas, were also in a fighting mood on the home front.

Wilma Morrison, who more recently spearheaded the movement to preserve the Nathaniel Dett BME Chapel in Niagara Falls, was part of the young peoples’ group at Stewart Memorial Church in Hamilton during the 1940s. She tells of the sit-ins they conducted in Hamilton restaurants and at the popular skating rink to ensure that Black people would not be denied service.

Part 2 - Interview

Well, Reverend J.C. Holland was, you know, our mentor and a wonderful man, well-recognised by the entire community of Hamilton. He was our minister at Stewart Memorial Church, and so if people would come in from time to time, people would have unfortunate incidents at restaurants and things like that, and they would come in and tell us about it. So what we would do is say, ‘oh what’s the street,’ take down the address, and we would go as a group to the various restaurants and I can’t remember any of the names of them, probably they’re all out of business now anyway, but we were never refused service when we went as a group, and it seemed ever after that then people, you know, we’d do little trials where a couple would go in, and we would be refused. There was only one, we went to maybe three or four different restaurants at varying times.

And then the skating rink, someone said that the skating rink, the Alexander, I remember that well, wouldn’t allow people in. People had gone singly and sometimes as couples and they had been turned away. So, we decided that we would book it. Oliver Holland, who was Reverend Holland’s son booked it in the Young Peoples’ name. Our Young Peoples’ group was always said—you didn’t say what church because automatically they would have known. We decided that we would all meet at the church and we would go as a group together, and we arrived at the door and the poor doorman had a fit, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I think there’s been some mistake’ and Oliver said no there hadn’t been any mistake, and Oliver was a lawyer, and he said ‘we booked for the Young Peoples’ department, and we told them we would be here at seven o’clock.’ He said, ‘well I’ll have to call my boss.’ So he called his boss and she said, ‘don’t let them in,’ so he came back to us and said that his boss had said that we were not to be allowed in. So I think they thought that we would get up and go home, but we didn’t. We stayed there, and every time someone opened the door to come in skating, we would say, ‘I’m sorry, they’re closed,’ and so they lost their business for that evening. What a stupid thing, so she paid a little bit of a price for being stupid. 

Listen: Stanley G. Grizzle. Click on the play circle below
Show/Hide Transcript

Part 1 - Intro

 In 1954, the Fair Accommodation Practices Act outlawing discrimination in public places was passed in Ontario in part due to actions taken by such groups as the youth group at Stewart Memorial, the National Unity Association in Chatham and Dresden, as well as the Jewish Labour Committee and other groups pressing for human rights legislation. The fight to pass legislation ending discrimination in employment is outlined by retired Citizenship Court Judge Stanley G. Grizzle, who was actively involved in this movement.

Part 2 - Interview

In the 1940s, Negro railway sleeping car porters organized into trade unions and agitated for federal and provincial legislation outlawing discrimination in employment and promotion as well as accommodation. At that time, there were 20 to 25 international trade unions with constitutional provisions barring Black membership. The organization in Canada and the United States of America largely responsible for awakening the Labour Movement, for the realization of its responsibility to attack all forms of discrimination and segregation in no uncertain terms was the Jewish Labour Committee, who under the direction of Mr. Kalmen Kaplansky carried on an effective educational program among trade unions in Canada.

By 1951, the Toronto division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters had set up its own human rights committee chaired by me (Stanley Grizzle), and some of the early members were Desmond Davis, Edward Brown, Lester Brown, Lou Chevalier, Robert Hulis, Len Johnson, Fred Sloman, Ernest Stinson, John W. Jackson, and G.H. Brown. After hundreds of telephone calls, letters, committee meetings, demonstrations, union meetings and conferences with porter unions, being the largest Black organization at the frontline agitating for anti-discrimination legislation. With great support of other unions, as well as churches and community groups, we were blessed with the following: in 1951, the Ontario Fair Employment Practices Act was passed. In 1953, the Canada Fair Employment Practices Act was passed. In 1954, the Ontario Fair Accommodation Practices Act was passed, and in 1955, the Canada Fair Accommodation Practices Act was passed.

Now, we should be reminded that FEP, again, Fair Employment Practices Legislation is the brainchild of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Thus, the gift of the porters for Canada and the United States of America. 

Listen: WWll to 1960 Conclusion.  Click on the play circle below
Show/Hide Transcript

Part 1

As with the Fair Employment Practices Act of 1951, the Fair Accommodation Act of 1954 had to be tested, for those who discriminated continued to do so after the Act was passed. This is when Hugh Burnett and the National Unity Association stepped up their efforts by testing the law in two restaurants in Dresden, Ontario. 

Part 2

The agitation and pressure put on the government by the Black community in conjunction with progressive labour, the Jewish Labour Committee, and the Canadian Jewish Congress, must be seen as heralding a new era of human rights and freedoms for people of all backgrounds, freedoms that we take for granted today. The work of Donald Moore and the Negro Citizenship Association of Toronto, in opening up immigration to people of African descent and other non-white groups in the 1950s can likewise be seen as a great contribution to the multicultural Canada we know today.

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