Black porters’ voices and stories: the Stanley Grizzle interview collection

By Stacey Zembrzycki

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The history of the railway in Canada is often narrated in a celebratory manner. It is seen as having united the country from coast to coast, with the last spike coming to symbolize the fruition of Confederation. And yet, this history is deeply rooted in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands and territories, the exploitation of Chinese migrant labourers, and the discriminatory labour practices experienced by Black sleeping car porters. The Stanley Grizzle interview collection, which consists of interviews with 35 men and 8 women who were either porters or had loved ones who worked the rails, offers a different account of the railway. The collection is exceptional because of its ability to bring us deep inside this history. It tells it from a new perspective that places Black Canadian and Black migrant labourers’ voices, as well as the stories of the racism that they experienced while employed by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), at its centre. These interviews also offer glimpses into the Depression, the Second World War, the struggle to unionize porters, the creation of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) and its Ladies’ Auxiliary, and ultimately what life was like inside Black communities across the country. The difficult narratives in this collection speak to the strength and resilience of those who have long been discriminated against simply because of the colour of their skin.

A painted head-and-shoulders portrait showing an older Black man dressed in judge’s robes and a crisp white shirt. His black robes are embellished with a burgundy sash. The man, who looks directly at the viewer, has short grey hair and a grey moustache.

Portrait of Citizenship Judge Stanley Grizzle by William J. Stapleton (c151473k)

In 1986 and 1987, Stanley Grizzle travelled across the country, to the CPR’s major junction points of Montréal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. There, he documented the experiences of those who were born in the first two decades of the 20th century and went on, in most cases, to have long and storied careers as porters. Grizzle was himself a porter for 20 years, as well as a labour union activist, political candidate, civil servant and citizenship judge. The narratives that he collected informed his 1998 memoir, My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada, Personal Reminiscences of Stanley G. Grizzle.

Portering was not a profession of choice. It was one of the only employment options available to Black men in the 1950s and 1960s. As Torontonian Leonard Oscar Johnston recounted:

I applied for jobs, but I was refused because of colour. Well, actually they called me “n….” And I remember one day, I walked from Jane and Bloor to River Street, along King Street, lookin’ for a job as a—I was a machinist. I had a couple of years machine shop, and I was told to shine shoes. Yeah. Now that’s 50, 60 years ago, but—and I decided, “Okay, I’ll shine shoes.” So, I went down the CPR.
(Interview 417394)

For others, being a porter was a way to escape the racial violence of the Deep South or to make a better life for themselves after leaving the Caribbean. Many of these migrant labourers were either university educated or held trade specializations but still could not find jobs in Canada. In desperation, they responded to CPR advertisements and recruitment campaigns, becoming porters. Some men stayed for 10 years, moving to other sectors once they opened up. Others remained for up to 40 years, to collect the pensions they earned for their service.

A crowd of people disembark from a train as railway employees and porters help them with their luggage.

Railway porters help passengers to disembark at a railway station (a058321)

These men were responsible for greeting rail passengers and attending to their every need while in transit. Prior to the creation of the BSCP, which ratified its first collective agreement in 1945, it was typical for porters to be on the road for three to four weeks at a time. While away from their families and communities, porters worked 21-hour days. They were permitted to sleep on the leather sofas in the smoking cars beside the bathrooms for just three hours a night, but only when all of their tasks, such as cleaning bathrooms, shining shoes, making beds, counting linens and attending to passengers’ needs, had been completed. The CPR also monitored porters’ time while on layovers, requiring them to report to the main stations daily, where they were forced to relay their activities and movements. For this work, the CPR paid porters a monthly salary of $75. This flat rate, coupled with the absence of overtime pay, meant that tips were the only way to survive.

The men, many of whom had knowledge of or experience working in other unions, knew that their situation could be improved only through unionization. They aligned themselves with famed American labour unionist, civil rights activist and organizer of the BSCP, A. Philip Randolph. The gains in their first collective agreement not only improved the lives of the men, leading to salary increases, overtime pay, assigned sleeping berths and decent meals, but also those of their families. Upward mobility, signified by purchasing homes, moving to the suburbs, and accessing higher education, were key developments that followed. The interviews in this collection describe the struggles to organize union locals across the country. They also depict the people, including the women participating in the Ladies’ Auxiliary, who made these efforts possible.

The experiences of the porters are still difficult to hear, but the interviews are fascinating, bringing us deep into the world of what Melvin Crump referred to as “porter talk” (Interview 417403). Namely, they give listeners the ability to view these experiences as the porters once did. We hear these men seamlessly move beyond the racism and discrimination that they experienced, spinning their everyday encounters into learning opportunities where fun could be had and power could be taken back. George Forray’s reflections were similar to those of others who recognized the systemic racism they faced:

“Well, I found it quite an education. I found it an education which I couldn’t have got at no university. An education in, uh, all the, uh, practically that we can say the facts of life all through and something I couldn’t have bought or earned or been taught, except when I went experienced it myself.”
(Interview 417383)

At heart, the Stanley Grizzle interview collection preserves voices and stories of survival. It tells us how porters viewed their passengers, themselves, and ultimately the world that worked so hard to beat them down.

Additional resources
My Name’s Not George: The Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada, Personal Reminiscences of Stanley G. Grizzle by Stanley G. Grizzle with John Cooper (OCLC 1036052571)
• “Chapter 3: The Black City below the Hill,” in Deindustrializing Montreal: Entangled Histories of Race, Residence, and Class by Steven High, pp. 92–128 (OCLC 1274199219)
Unsettling the Great White North: Black Canadian History by Michelle A. Johnson and Funké Aladejebi, eds. (OCLC 1242464894)
North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870–1955 by Sarah-Jane Mathieu (OCLC 607975641)
The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr (OCLC 1302576764)

Stacey Zembrzycki is an award-winning oral and public historian of immigrant, ethnic and refugee experiences. She is currently doing research for Library and Archives Canada.