Published December 7, 2021
Myseum of Toronto is hosting an online conversation with Cecil Foster, UB professor of Africana and American Studies, at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 to officially open a new exhibition based on his groundbreaking history, “They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada.”
“Derailed: The History of Black Railway Porters in Canada” is a digital exhibit created in collaboration with Foster that builds upon his book’s illuminating narrative to present the porters’ story through dramatic monologues, articles, archival photographs, artifacts and discussion surrounding their push for civil rights across North America.
Andria Babbington, president of the Toronto & York Regional Labour Council, will join Foster, along with John Cartwright, who previously served the organization in the same capacity. Babbington is the first woman of color to hold the Labour Council’s presidency, an organization that represents more than 220,000 union members. Cartwright helped create a labor-community coalition, which crafted a framework for employment opportunities for racialized communities on major construction projects.
Myseum encourages guests to register for the free event in advance, but the discussion will also be streamed on Facebook Live, with an archived version posted to Myseum’s website and YouTube channel about one week after the live stream.
“At Myseum, we strive to honor the history of diverse communities,” says Heidi Reitmaier, Myseum’s executive director. “Programs like ‘Derailed’ shed light on lesser known parts of history. We have brought together writers, filmmakers, actors and storytellers to provide a greater understanding of the work that Black railway porters did to pave the way for a more equitable and multicultural [society].”
That Foster’s book now lives in a medium beyond the printed page is another step toward correcting a historical blind spot that kept the porters out of view and unjustifiably absent from textbooks and general histories. And while “Derailed” will appeal to Foster’s readers, it also opens the porters’ story to another audience by interactively presenting the material to online visitors.
“I’m thrilled that we have another way to tell this very important story about some of the heroes of the civil rights movement in this part of the world,” Foster says. “Now any boy or girl from a very early age using a laptop or cellphone can acquaint themselves with this story. They can do so at their own pace and as frequently as they wish. And of course, parents, relatives and friends will be able to explore this digital story that touches so many lives — and at one time touched all of our lives.
“For many of us, going back a generation or two, we would have had a family member who worked as a sleeping car porter, which for roughly 90 years beginning in the 1870s was the primary form of Black employment on the continent.”
The porters’ story begins as a labor movement that witnessed the creation of North America’s first Black labor union. But their efforts to secure workers’ rights were poetically mobile, manifest in the movement of the trains that crisscrossed a continent on a determined course toward human dignity, carrying a message that would put them at the forefront of the civil rights movement, including the fight to desegregate the U.S. military after World War II, according to Foster.
“That’s one of the things the book reminds us of: the transnational and diasporic element to the Black experience in North America,” he says.
The porters’ influence can be found throughout the decades that lead to two of the era’s defining moments: the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The first leader of the porters’ union, A. Philip Randolph, was among the main organizers of the march, and it was Randolph who gave the introduction before King delivered one of the most famous speeches in history.
The porters’ story can now take its place in history, not just as a moment in a movement, but as a prevailing presence in the fight for equality.
“My book and this exhibit demonstrate that there is indeed a society capable of moving toward the creation of justice and equality for all of its members,” Foster says. “We can create a place where race doesn’t matter and we realize that human dignity is worth fighting for and preserving. When people hear this story, visitors to the exhibit can better understand how Black people struggled and continue to do so to assert that dignity and be recognized as human beings.
“That story is the story of the Black sleeping car porters.”