- - Wednesday, April 10, 2019


By Cecil Foster

Biblioasis, $18.95, 336 pages

Trains have been the lifeblood of society since the days of ancient Greece. The creation of the steam, locomotive and electronic models, along with the more recent high speed rail, have been used as crucial modes of transportation for people, places and things.

Most of us have a casual relationship with trains. For me, it’s the occasional trip, the classic Lionel set up in my childhood home and my son’s never-ending fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine. In other cases, people spent their lives either building the railroads or travelling up and down them.

Cecil Foster’s “They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada” examines one of the more unique, and rarely discussed, stories of the railroad. The author, journalist and chairman at the University of Buffalo’s transnational studies department had intended “to capture the words” of black train porters discussing their work and lives, but “time has caught up with most of these men.” Mr. Foster did speak with several younger porters who had worked on trains with them, and utilized archives housed in organizations like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’s Toronto division, to re-create their stories. Through their eyes, ears, minds and hearts, the black experience in modern Canada is unveiled.

Black porters worked on the trains in the young nation’s salad days. In fact, “[w]ithout the railways, the situation would have been even starker for Black people in Canada.” It was an important means of employment for black Americans, the Caribbean community and those studying in Canadian universities who came from the British West Indies. Many porters were educated and had university degrees. Their jobs afforded them the opportunity to speak with prominent individuals in politics and academia, and read newspapers, magazines and books contained on the train, left behind on trips or recommended to them. They even “augmented their livelihood” by selling fashionable clothes and music “from one town to another and sold them at a profit.”

A porter’s salary was rather low, so they relied on tips to make ends meet. George Pullman, the American founder of the sleeping car porter service (and the reason why they’re often called “Pullmen”), encouraged this practice so “porters would maintain the highest quality service in the hopes of a small monetary token of appreciation.” As Mr. Foster points out, “tipping and hustling, or the bootlegging of merchandise on trains and in their communities, would outpace wages as porters’ main income source.”

To complement this, porters adapted a public image of being “good housekeepers.” They had to be “attentive to details of service and the wishes of their guests,” maintain their train cars like well-oiled machines, and help other porters when needed. It wasn’t an easy task, but they worked hard and did their very best.

There are many interesting interviews in “They Call Me George” with former railway porters like Nova Scotia’s Harold Adams and Stan Grizzle, who later ran for politics as a left-wing New Democrat and was appointed a citizenship judge. The financial comfort achieved by some porters enabled their children, including Progressive Conservative MP Lincoln Alexander and jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, to lead better lives.

Yet it was difficult for them at times to succeed in Canada. It may be a country with a long-standing reputation for tolerance and inclusion, but it also had an unfortunate history as a “white country exclusively for the habitation and benefit of people of European ethnicities,” and no one else. “Institutionally, in policy and practice, Canada was officially White Man’s Country,” writes Mr. Foster, “and it intended to stay that way.”

The black train porters, like the vast majority of Canada’s black community, weren’t going to stand for this. They fought for civil rights, equality and acceptance at every turn. They joined delegations in support of more opportunities for black Canadians to climb the different ladders of success. They challenged Canada’s immigration policy as being anti-black. With the aid of Jewish groups and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, they created a “mutual fight for anti-discrimination legislation in employment and housing.” They also surely believed “all human beings were reasonable and could be persuaded to confront the inhumanity caused by their ideology and practices,” and worked hard to make it happen.

Mr. Foster’s well-written book about black train porters contains a wealth of information that is illuminating, revealing and, at times, disappointing. The beauty of the Canadian railroad had its ugly side, too.

• Michael Taube is a frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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