“Back then, as Black people in Montreal we really valued each other… I remember the days when you would acknowledge every Black person you saw on the street. It was very important to nod at the person.In fact, we took pleasure in doing so.”
Meet Raymond Moore and Ron Williams, two Montrealers who remember the day when Black folks acknowledged each other on the street.
They know, because they grew up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and they are proud to say that they came of age at a time when Black families in this city were forced to appreciate the true meaning of togetherness and community building.
Born and raised in different parts of Montreal, Williams on Weredale Street in lower Westmount and Moore in Verdun and Ville Emard, their families were among the 2000 or so Blacks that settled in districts across the city such as Verdun, Ville Emard or Cote St. Paul, and in the West End and surrounding areas (as they called Little Burgundy back in the day).
Other Black families could also have been found in Cote des Neiges, on the South Shore and the West Island.
Off the top of his head Moore was able to offer a laundry list of individuals and families who, although they were scattered across Montreal, maintained an unbroken link to the community.
Among them are some prominent ones like the Farrays, McGhies, Bournes, Webbs, Marshalls, Colleymores, Collins, Hamiltons, Haynes, Jones, Kendaces, Freemans and Livingstones in Ville Emard. Then there were Phillips, Husbands, Livingstones, Stuckers, Grants, Roberts, Barrons and Lawrences in Verdun.
He also remembers the Chambers, Silcotts, Clarks and Martins were in Cote des Neiges. Also the Greens, Gates and Rodriguez on the South Shore, and in the East End there were the Leacocks, Bains and Clarks.
He also reels out an even longer list of names he remembers in the downtown West End area, including
Daleys, Williams, Fields, Yearwoods, Wilsons, Jackmans, Rockheads, Scotts, Hays, Thomas’, Tynes, Deans, Whites, Batsons, Jones, Petersons, Follettes, Sherwoods, Nurses, Waltons, Smiths, Stevens, Mortons, Gilchrists, Trotmans, Lords, Cowards, Chase, Blackmans, Chichesters, Peters, Deans, Millington, Bradshaws, Braithwaites, Dashs, McIntyres, Keezers and Fonsecas.
But both agree that the heart of the Black community then was downtown in the area bordered by Green, west of Atwater, to Peel on the east with St. Antoine to the north and Notre Dame to the south.
Everything and much everyone was there at some point in their lives, to work, to visit or to play. It was the area where the earliest members of the community settled; men who came from the USA, Atlantic Canada, and a few from the Caribbean came to work on the railroad.
As the community took root and institutions and families grew, the place became a hub of activities for the growing number of Blacks flowing into the city.
The Negro Community Centre was there, as was Union United Church, also several little community-focused businesses sprouted, including the famed Ben White’s grocery store from which many initiatives grew.
For those who were not attending the “coloured church” as Union was called, there was St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, and for the creatures of pleasure there were nightspots such as the Elks Club and the famed Rockhead’s Paradise.
Up to today, you will hear it said: “That’s when we had a community.”
It all came crashing down in the mid 1960s when the then mayor Jean Drapeau’s administration expropriated all the properties in the area to build the Ville Marie Expressway.
The move drove a stake in the heart of the community and many say it never recovered.
Both Moore and Williams remembered the fledgling community backs then with pride.
Williams says it didn’t matter which part of the city the families were situated, wherever they were, they were united by a sense of community and deep-rooted respect for each other.
“All the grown-ups were called “auntie” or “uncle” and it was understood by the children that they could’ve been disciplined by any grown-up, whether they were related to you or not,” says Williams whose mom and dad came to Montreal from Barbados and settled in the downtown area .
Growing up on Egan Street in Ville Emard, Moore was surrounded by a community of Black families on his street and on the adjoining d’Arcy McGee. His grandfather came to Montreal from Carriacou, Grenada, via England and grandmother was an English woman. On his father’s side, his grandparents were from Barbados.
“Back then, as Black people in Montreal we really valued each other,” he says. “I remember the days when you would acknowledge every Black person you saw on the street. It was very important to nod at the person. In fact, we took pleasure in doing so.”
Looking back at the community as it came of age, Moore and Williams paint a picture of a people rooted by faith and spirituality, with Union United Church being one of the pillars in the foundation, and its spiritual leader, the Reverend Charles Este holding fort over the religious, social and political well-being of almost every Black person in Montreal.
They talked also of the determination of men and women to do what it took at the time to provide for their families.
“Most of the men worked on the railroad, which weren’t high paying jobs, but they held them with dignity,” says Williams, whose dad and many relatives worked as porters with CP Rail.
The women were also relentless in their resolve to nurture their families, with many doing double duty as home makers and moonlighting in other jobs such as cleaning, sewing or whatever it took to add to the household income.
All of it taking place at a time when systemic racism and discrimination were integral to their society and Blacks were firmly entrenched in their status as second-class citizens, which didn’t prevent them from forming meaningful relationships with their white neighbors and continuously striving to become worthy citizens.
And remarkably, many in the community were able to sidestep the hurdles placed in their way and climb the ladder of success in various fields and disciplines. Also establishing illustrious careers and contributing in their own way to the social, economic and political fabric of the city, province and country.
It is out of this time and place that renowned Canadians such as Jazz pianists Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, music teacher Daisy Peterson, academic and athlete Roy States, teacher and musician Violet States, jurist and academic Judge Juanita Westmoreland Traoré, actor Percy Rodriguez, and boxing champion Danny Webb emerged to national and international acclaim.
And as proud as they are of those illustrious Montrealers, Moore and Williams are quick to add that the list has been made so much longer by the efforts the many individuals who, through sheer determination and hard work, helped to give the community hope and direction.
For Moore, that person is Dr. Charles Este who was spiritual leader of Union United Church between 1923 and 1968, and who became a resounding voice for the community advocating on its behalf in areas of employment, social issues, immigration, housing and health care.
“He was truly a man of the people and the community was lucky to have him standing up for us.”
For Williams, one of the persons who stand out is Victor Phillips, an entrepreneur, fashion maven, cultural icon and world traveller.
“He was way ahead of his time, an intellect who knew everything about Africa and African Art when hardly anyone in the community thought about those things. He also dressed us all in some of the finest suits.”
Among the others who helped the community and city grow because of their achievements and contributions were:
• Dr Maurice Bourne who was the only Black dentist in Montreal at the time
• Ilene Bourne was a Jazz pianist in the Montreal area
• Eddie Nurse became a school teacher
• Leon Jacobs became a professor at Dawson College.
• Ralph Whims became a school principal
• Richard Lord, who attended Michigan State University where he played hockey and football while earning his Engineering degree, returned to work for the City of Montreal
• Gwen Lord went on to become the 1st female Black principal in Montreal
• James Nurse went on to become an award winning artist
• Milton Sealey graduated from McGill University in the 1920s and became a notary and was on the Board of The Union United Church
• Kay Nelson owned the beauty parlor in the neighborhood, and girls and women came from all over Montreal to experience her special touch. On many occasions her shop remained packed with women waiting for a perm well after midnight
• Charles Griffiths, former dance instructor at Union United Church, went on to establish a well-respected dance school
• Carlos Keizer went on to become a psychologist and was educated in Los Angeles
• Howard Blanchette, whose father was on The Board of Directors at Union United Church, went on to become a doctor and moved to the U.S.
• Mervyn Dash owned the Rock and Roll Club. He later moved to the United States and became a reputable music promoter for Grammy Award winning Roberta Flack and Regina Bell
• The Black Bottom Jazz Club was owned and operated by Charlie Burke. It was located at Mountain and St. Antoine St. Everyone hung out there after hours and musicians came there to “Jam.” It was also famous for its chicken wings. Romeo Lord was the cook.
Then there were the local legends that loomed large within the community because of their pizzazz, reputation and abilities to make things happen.
Moore’s dad, Mr. Arnold Moore, drove for Veteran Taxi Service and was one of the first Black truck drivers in Quebec. As a member of the Teamsters Union, Moore was known for his no nonsense approach to things and earned the respect of many across the city.
Former Contact columnist Bob White also stood tall at the time as an entrepreneur, youth advocate, and sports enthusiast and man-about-town.
There were also many sports legends that earned fame and acclaim, not the least of which were players in the Girls Negro Baseball League, with games played at St. Remi Park in St. Henri. The team, called the Brown Dodgers, included stars such as Maggie Howard, Anna Farray, Phillips Sealy, Shirley Williams, Vivian Sealy, and was coached by Carl Simmons and George Sealy.
Then there was the Buddies’s basketball team which, when they were allowed to compete, dominated leagues across the city. The original team featured stars like Marcus Durant and Alfred Braithwaite and the team of younger players that followed which included, Jimmy Nurse, Ronnie Williams, Leon Jacobs, Richard Cessford, Richard Simmonds, and Ralph Whims, who everyone agrees should have been in the NBA.
Football player Ivan Livingstone also made a name for himself on the field as a running back with the Montreal Alouettes. He went on to be an educator and travelled extensively to countries in Africa, teaching.
Individual exploits aside, the community that Moore, Williams and their childhood friends continue to celebrate is one that was family-centred, where many of the children attended Royal Arthur School on Canning Street, where hockey and other games were played at Staynor in the lane between Egan and D’Arcy Magee Streets and other favorite spots.
After the church, the Negro Community Centre was the most prominent gathering place for many, but so too was the weekly dances held at the downtown YMCA, and for the bolder set, Jakes Pool Room.
But Williams remembers that, “ Sunday was perhaps the busiest day of the week. Firstly, we would dress in our “Sunday best” and head to service at Union United Church, some looking forward to the sermon by the charismatic Reverend Este, which commenced at 11am, and the choir led by Mrs. Grant on organ, which filled the church with voices of angelic quality.
One hour later, the young people would congregate in the main hall of Union United for Sunday School classes led by Barbara Cooper, Elaine Cooper, Mrs. Burke and Ms. Tilly Mays offering lessons that were both entertaining and informative. Other teachers included Willie Burke, June Jones, Barbara Cooper, Desmond Johnson, and Mrs. Mildred Williams added that on Wednesday groups of pre-teen and teens headed for the U.N.I.A Hall on Fulford Street (now George Vanier Street) for Christian Endeavor classes.
“Although all were surviving on small budgets, the parents ensured that all children were properly dressed.”
The summertime saw many children and their mothers going on the annual pilgrimage to the McCaulley Camp in Ontario.
Moore said it was a community that knew how to have fun. And apart from the picnics and regular outings they also had a thriving nightlife at the many popular nightclubs that dotted the edge of the community, such as the famed Rockheads Paradise, Esquire Show Bar, Harlem Paradise, Charlie Burks and the Black Bottom.
These days, the faces that Ray Moore and Ronnie Williams see as they walk around Montreal are not as familiar in a community that has grown to be one of the largest cultural groups in Quebec, at over 175,000 strong, French and English.
They can’t help but wonder how much further we would have been as a group w if the togetherness and community-building aspirations present in the early days, had stayed with us.