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The American Revolutionary War took place from 1775 to 1783. During that time 3,000 Black Loyalists fled New York for Nova Scotia.
Upon arrival, they were given freedom, land and supplies by the British.
Nearly all the Black Loyalists had been enslaved at one point, and some were still enslaved when they arrived in Nova Scotia.
Among the 3,000 new settlers were a man and woman, unfortunately they were unnamed, and we don’t know much about them.
They could’ve brought a family with them or maybe hadn’t met yet but eventually this couple had children and more than a century later, their offspring seemed to excel at everything they did.
Among the children was a young girl who had a voice that could only be described as angelic.
Her name…was Portia White.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!
When you think of incredible Canadian musical talent you may list off…
Justin Bieber even Celine Dion
Those names became synonymous with Canadian talent over the 20th century.
But What about Portia White?
If you haven’t heard of her, you are not alone.
Today, she is little known outside of certain circles and the province of Nova Scotia.
But during her heyday, she was arguably one of the best singers on the planet.
When Neil Young and Joni Mitchell were toddlers battling polio, she was wowing audiences with her unbelievable singing ability.
When Oscar Peterson was tickling the ivories in clubs in Montreal, she was becoming the first Black Canadian concert singer to achieve international fame.
And by the time Joni Mitchell released her debut album, Song To A Seagull, in 1968, Portia White was already gone.
Her musical career was brief, but highly influential and the path she carved allowed countless other Canadian singers to follow.
Portia White’s story begins on June 24, 1911, in Truro, Nova Scotia.
She was born the third of 13 children, to William and Dora White and was named for the character of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.
In the play, Portia achieves her goal of marrying the suitor of her choice through her determination, grace, and intelligence.
Achieving something through determination would be exactly what Portia would eventually do.
She would go on to say,
“First you dream, then you lace up your boots.”
Determination was something of a family trait.
William, Portia’s father, had already made a name for himself locally when she was born.
He was the son of formerly enslaved peoples in Virginia and came to Nova Scotia in 1900 when he saw the province as a place where he could prosper.
While racism and segregation were a reality, there were more opportunities for him than in Virginia.
And he made the most of it.
He became the second Black Canadian to attend Acadia University, and the first to graduate with a Doctorate in Divinity.
He was also the first to see the budding singing talent in Portia.
By the time she was six, his daughter was singing in the church, it was something William encouraged not forced because Portia adored singing.
She said decades later,
“No one ever told me to sing. I was born singing.”
She told her father that she wanted to sing. Not just sometimes, but to make a living singing.
By the mid-1910s, the family moved to Africville.
This small community next to Halifax was home to many Black Canadian and despite being right next to Halifax, it was denied basic infrastructure such as roads, water, and sewage.
The city used the area as an industrial site and placed the municipal landfill next to Africville.
The community was eventually bulldozed by Halifax in the 1960s, forcing its residents to find new homes.
Meanwhile this was a thriving community home to many famous Black Canadians including boxer George Dixon, activist Eddie Carvery, artist Edith Hester McDonald-Brown and, of course, the subject of our story…Portia White.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Portia’s father helped form the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Due to racism in the Canadian military, many Black recruits were denied enlistment, so they formed their own battalion — the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
And although they were sent to France, racism kept them far from the front lines.
Nonetheless, the No. 2 Construction Battalion served their country with distinction.
And Portia’s father, William, became the only Black chaplain in the Canadian military.
He was given the rank of Honorary Captain, making him the only Black Canadian officer in the military as well.
During this time Portia continued to impress Nova Scotia with her singing.
By the time she was eight, she was singing Italian operas.
To improve Portia started taking music lessons but there were no music teachers in Africville, so she had to walk 16 kilometres once a week to attend lessons.
After graduating high school, Portia enrolled in Dalhousie University in 1929 with the hopes of becoming a teacher.
Upon graduation she returned to Africville to begin teaching, while singing in her spare time.
Using the money she saved, she attended the Halifax Conservatory of Music.
In the early-1930s, Portia’s father William began to broadcast his services from the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church over the radio.
The monthly broadcast was heard throughout the Maritimes, and Portia was a regular singer on the program and helped fundraise for the church through her singing. The program was her first taste of reaching an audience outside of the Halifax area.
On May 15, 1931, one of Portia’s first newspaper mentions was published in the Halifax Evening Mail stating she was a soprano of lovely quality.
By the mid-1930s, Portia became known throughout Halifax and in 1935, she competed at the Halifax Music Festival where she won the Helen Kennedy Cup.
In my research for this episode, I attempted to find out who Helen Kennedy was but came up empty handed. She was likely someone involved with the festival at some point and if you’re a listener with details on this please reach out and let me know….
Regardless Amid Portia’s growing success, tragedy struck.
On Sept. 9, 1936, her beloved father, William, died of cancer.
“The finest, bravest man I ever knew, my father, was not there to see the silver cup on my mantlepiece.”
The silver cup Portia mentioned would become a permanent fixture because she won the Helen Kennedy Cup again in 1937 and repeated in 1938. When event organizers gave her the cup to keep, she said,
“They gave me a boost.”
Little did she know that a chance occurrence shortly after would alter the rest of her life and career.
Pivotal to Portia’s future was Ernesto Vinci.
Born in Berlin in 1898, he studied singing, and eventually became well-known in Germany for operatic singing at recitals and on the radio.
He was also a skilled vocal teacher, and he was flourishing until 1933, when the Nazi Party rose to power. Ernesto was Jewish and he suddenly found himself unwelcomed and in danger in his own country.
He left Europe amid the growing unrest and attempted to settle in New York City but was denied entry, likely because he was Jewish.
Instead, he chose to settle in Halifax.
Which to be honest was a bit of a miracle because at the time, Canada’s policy on Jewish immigrants and refugees was even more stringent than the United States.
While in Halifax, Ernesto happened to hear Portia White sing during a community performance.
She wasn’t yet known beyond Nova Scotia, so he offered to train the undiscovered talent.
The Halifax Ladies Musical Club raised a scholarship to help pay for the lessons.
Under Ernesto’s tutelage he began to instruct her to sing deeper, where he felt her voice was better suited.
With the training, Portia’s singing improved and on Aug. 1, 1939, she booked a performance at the Halifax Conservatory Hall.
At the performance was a woman on vacation from Toronto.
And this woman would take Portia’s legacy from renowned to immortal.
Edith Read was the principal of a private girls’ school in Toronto. She was visiting Halifax when she saw Portia’s performance and immediately recognized her as a once in a generation talent.
Edith offered to help get Portia’s name across Canada and she quickly arranged a performance outside of Halifax.
Meanwhile Portia was still working as a teacher and devoted most of her time to linguistic studies.
Along with singing Portia mastered three languages, French, German and Italian, which helped her sing in those languages.
She also began to perform at Acadia University and Mount Allison University.
As the momentum grew Edith and Ernesto supported and pushed Portia for more and their efforts were successful when she made her national debut as a singer at the Eaton Auditorium in Toronto on Nov. 7, 1941.
The performance was a triumph.
The Globe and Mail said she sang with a pungent expression and beauty of utterance.
The Evening Telegram called her voice a gift from heaven.
Portia was called the Canadian Marian Anderson, referencing the celebrated American singer who became one of the most important African American singers in the United States from 1925 to 1965.
The performance also brought Portia her first singing contract, she said,
“I really made my debut here in Toronto when I sang in November 1941. It was my fourth professional engagement, but it was my first big city. The next day I received a contract. I always feel it was Toronto which discovered me.”
Portia finally quit her teaching job and from this point on, nothing would ever be the same.
She was on a meteoric rise and was about to make the dream she shared with her father come true.
She was going to make a living… singing.
On Jan. 29, 1943, Portia White gave her first concert in Ottawa, wowing critics impressed by her voice.
The Ottawa Journal wrote,
“The first concert of Portia White in the capital city of her own country provided the audience one of the great artistic experiences that are all too rare in a lifetime.”
Word quickly spread about the talented singer and within a few days, she was singing at Rideau Hall for the Governor General and Princess Alice, Prince Philip’s mother. Her son would go on to become Queen Elizabeth’s II husband.
Portia then traveled to Regina, where the Regina Leader-Post stated that listening to Portia White was like encountering some elemental force.
Unfortunately, an experience in the city was less than pleasant.
After her show, she attempted to stay in a room at the Regina Hotel but was refused entry because of the colour of her skin.
Upon hearing this, Edith McNab, the wife of the Lt. Governor Peter McNab, sent an official car and provided Portia with a room in Government House.
The members of the Regina Musical Women’s Club also actively campaigned to end such discrimination in the city.
Years later, when Portia returned to the city to sing, the Regina Hotel gave her a red-carpet treatment where they had previously denied her.
But racism wasn’t new for Portia, and she encountered oppression often.
During future tours of the United States, she was denied entry to some venues, and finding accommodations could be difficult.
She was also once told she was not allowed to enter the neighbourhood where she owned a house and lived.
As much as society tried to challenge her, she persevered in achieving her dream.
And despite Nova Scotia’s history of segregation and racism, the province went full force in its support of Portia and helped raise her profile.
In 1944, the Nova Scotia Talent Trust was created to enable Portia to focus on her career.
The trust was formed by the mayor of Halifax John Edward Lloyd, the Lt. Governor of Nova Scotia Henry Ernest Kendall, Ernesto Vinci, and several other prominent citizens.
This trust allowed Portia to focus completely on singing, while giving her the funds needed to travel outside of the province and Canada for performances.
They also presented her with a white fox cape for her performances.
The trust came at the perfect time because Portia was about to stage the most important performance of her career.
On March 13, 1944, she became the first Canadian to perform at New York’s Town Hall.
Built in 1921, this building quickly became a top venue in New York City and had seen speeches by presidents, and performances by icons such as the Von Trapp family, Marian Anderson, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others.
Portia White’s performance at the venue made her a star in the United States.
The New York Herald said she possessed a magnificent vocal instrument.
She would go on to perform twice more at the venue, in 1944 and again in 1945.
In 1945, Portia signed with Columbia Concerts, the largest artist agency in North America.
They booked her in venues throughout North, South and Central America.
That same year, she appeared in the National Film Board film, This Is Canada.
Unknown outside of Halifax just a few years earlier, Portia was now famous internationally.
During a tour of Central America, she was presented with a medal by the Panamanian government following a performance.
In Ecuador, people came out to hear her sing despite rebel forces occupying the streets.
Portia said the worst thing that happened during that visit was the cockroaches who ate her stockings.
Unfortunately, Portia’s meteoric rise came with an unwanted consequence.
Upon her return from South America in 1946, she began to experience vocal problems and had to take the next year off.
The touring schedule was too strenuous, and she was not giving herself time to recover between performances.
The woman who lived to sing was now restricted from singing for her own health.
After some rest, she toured the Maritimes, Switzerland, and France in 1948 but needed surgery after to deal with ongoing vocal problems.
The 1948 tour would be her last major performance. To make things worse, she was battling cancer. Despite her vocal problems, her voice was something to behold, as this clip from a CBC performance shows,
In 1948, she retired…. for the most part.
Music was too much of a part of who she was, and she was not going to give up on it easily.
While public performances were few and far between, she gave back to the musical community and married her passion for singing and teaching.
In 1952, she moved to Toronto and became a vocal teacher, among her students were Lorne Greene and Robert Goulet.
Lorne Greene, as you will remember, went on to portray Ben Cartright on Bonanza and released 10 albums from 1961 to 1966, scoring a number one hit with Ringo in 1964.
Robert Goulet became one of Canada’s most celebrated singers.
His career spanned from the 1950s to 2000s, and during that time he won a Tony Award, five Emmys and a Grammy.
He released dozens of albums and received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
All of this would’ve been difficult without Portia’s influence.
Portia also served as the singing coach for the cast of the Anne of Green Gables musical in the mid-1950s.
She would return to the stage in a rare performance on Nov. 13, 1958.
Prior to that Toronto concert, she spoke with CBC,
In 1959, she made her television acting debut when she portrayed Tituba, in a CBC production of the play The Crucible.
Tituba was an enslaved woman who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.
By the 1960s, Portia performed sparingly and almost always for special occasions.
On Oct. 6, 1964, she performed for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, at the Charlottetown Confederation Centre of the Arts in Prince Edward Island.
After the performance, the Queen commended Portia for her choice of song, Bonnie George Campbell, as the song t often-brought tears to Queen’s eyes when she was a child.
In July 1967, at the World Baptist Federation in Ottawa, Portia gave her final public performance.
And although she had beaten cancer years earlier, the terrible disease wasn’t done with her yet and after another battle Portia White died of breast cancer on Feb. 13, 1968.
Although she left no studio recordings her voice and legacy can be heard through many recorded concerts.
Since her death, her legend has only grown.
In 1995, she was declared a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada.
Four years later in 1999, a stamp was issued in her honour by Canada Post.
In 1998, the Nova Scotia Arts Council created the Portia White Prize, awarded annually to an artist in the province.
In 2016, Portia was considered for the $10 note but lost to another Black woman from Nova Scotia, Viola Desmond.
In 2021, the province formed a scholarship to honour Portia White and help others achieve their musical goals.
Today, a portrait of Portia White hangs at Government House in Nova Scotia.
While Portia White made a name for herself far beyond the borders of Halifax, the rest of her family also went on to excel in many ways.
I have already talked about William White Portia’s father and the many things he accomplished in his life.
And I mentioned Portia’s family was pretty prolific.
Her nephew Cris White went on to become a celebrated folk musician.
Her grandnephew, George Elliott Clarke, became the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate and the first recipient of the Portia White Prize.
Portia’s brother Bill became a composer and activist, and the first Black Canadian to run for federal office.
He ran in the 1949 federal election for the Co-operative Commonwealth Party, finishing third.
Portia’s other brother Jack became a labour union leader and the first elected Black representative of the Ironworkers.
Lastly, her nephew Donald Oliver served 22 years in the Canadian Senate from 1990 to 2022.
As for the trust that was created by Nova Scotia to help fund Portia’s performances, it would go on to provide 26 men and 31 women with $77,000 to enable them to study music by 1964.
By 2022, the now-named Nova Scotia Talent Trust had helped 1,100 Nova Scotians, providing them with over $2.5 million to realize their musical dreams.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Dalhousie University, National Music Centre, Wikipedia, BlackPast.org, Halifax Evening Mail, Claresholm Local Press, Ottawa Journal, Montreal Gazette,