North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955

By Sarah-Jane Mathieu; Waldo E. Martin Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Building an Empire, Uplifting a Race

Race, Uplift, and Transnational Alliances

Though still dazed by race riots, disruptive strikes, and a double-cross by white workers, African Canadian railroaders licked their war wounds and focused on rebuilding their communities during the 1920s. Having proven his mettle, John A. Robinson broadened his vision of working-class trade unionism after the war, worrying less about alliances with other white railwaymen and concentrating more on racial uplift programs within black communities. For those fortunate enough to know him, and others content to have heard his name whispered in railway cars, black-owned boardinghouses, and African Canadian diners, Robinson personified sleeping car porters’ undaunted courage. Certainly Canadian sleeping car porters knew the man who had stared down his bosses before the federal government’s Board of Conciliation, making clear that black railroaders would not stand for exploitative employment practices without putting up a fight even at the risk of reprisals. White railway unionists also recognized Robinson, who, after a three-year campaign for admission in the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees, insisted that black railwaymen’s membership would never be questioned again.

The Great War and labor’s rebellion had reinforced the importance of national and international mobilization for African Canadians. Black soldiers returned from the war front armed with a sense of fellowship and racial pride that transcended state-bound nationalism. Sleeping car porters, with many veterans of the Winnipeg General Strike, also shared a feeling of camaraderie as union men; in subsequent years, both groups—porters and soldiers

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