An important part of Canadian history is the railway system. In 1919, The Canadian National Railways connected people via thousands of miles of train tracks from across the country into the US. The workers who looked after passengers, called porters, were Black men from Canada, the US, The Caribbean and Africa. Their legacy from early 1900 to the 1960s is documented in Selwyn Jacob’s 1996 The Road Taken.
Jacob interviews several men who worked the railway as sleeping car porters, one of the few jobs available to Black men, and one admired in the Black community. These porters were educated men with impeccable manners, families and pillars in their communities. They were deeply religious, rooted in supporting their friends and family. The porters experienced good times, especially at the famous Rockhead’s Night Club opened by a former porter, with the boom of employment and relaxing of the barrage of racial unrest which was a welcomed break.
But their jobs came with other issues. Despite better treatment of Black people experienced in Canada, there was still racism and prejudice. The porters were conflicted—along with the pride from the job, they were sidelined by racism from white passengers and never being candidates for advancement or promotions.
The Road Taken features candid accounts from Lee Williams, who championed porter rights, John Clyke, who carried a family name synonymous with Black Nova Scotia, Eddie Bailey, Calvin Ruck, and many more who dedicated their lives to the CNR.