The Haitian adage “cé zye ki pè travay” admonishes that “‘tis the eyes that fear the work.” Facing hundreds of archival files and seemingly endless microfilm reels—none of them reassuringly labeled “black/Negroes/colored”— made these eyes fear indeed. So too did staring at the computer screen wondering how and when I would make this story come to life, how I would do justice to the many families who handed over their memories and photographs to me, then a graduate student hitchhiking across Canada scouting for surviving sleeping car porters. I am not sure when I stopped fearing in favor of writing, but I do know to whom I am beholden for committing my thoughts to page and delighting in the process.
This story about sleeping car porters, the forgotten black men who slipped in and out of Canada’s famed railway stations during the first half of the twentieth century, first took shape in the kitchen of Mrs. Frances Atwell. Born in Winnipeg in 1923, Mrs. Atwell grew up with many of the key figures in this story and remembered them with infectious enthusiasm and enviable clarity. During our first interview—which lasted nine hours!—Frances and her husband, George, told of the impressive measures taken by porters intent on protecting their workers’ rights and defending African Canadians’ social, political, cultural, and economic interests. Most important, Mrs. Atwell played a critical role in helping me meet other Winnipeg railway families—Lee and Alice Williams, Helen and Eddie Bailey, Eddie Blackman, and Lawrence and Ethel Lewsey—who also graciously shared their experiences with me. To all the black Winnipeggers who entrusted their stories to me, who drove me around town, and who fed me, I thank you.
I also owe tremendous thanks to the Blanchette family—Yvonne Blanchette, Diane Chambers, and Dr. Howard Blanchette—for sharing their memories of the man I would most have liked to meet: the indefatigable railway activist Arthur R. Blanchette. Dr. Blanchette was especially generous with his time and even invited me to join his family for a reunion in St. Kitts. Arthur R. Blanchette’s joie de vivre lived on in his son’s baritone laughter and in the many stories he recounted. I hope that this book honors Arthur R.