Black History Month Profiles, Part II: Portia White, the Singer.
And here is a second profile prepared by our very own Kevin Lopes
Last week we began profiling significant black Canadians in history with Mary Ann Shadd Cary, an activist and publisher in the 19th century. Next on our list is Portia White, a singer who led the way for black Canadian female singers in the 20th century. Portia’s voice was described once as “a gift from heaven” and she is considered one of the best classical singers of the 20th century.
Born Truro, Nova Scotia in 1911 and raised in Halifax, Portia White’s was the third of 13 children. Her father, William A. White, was the first black graduate of Acadia University in 1906 and a Baptist minister. It was through her father Baptist’s ministry where Portia would begin singing after joining the choir at the age of six. When she was eight she had learned the soprano parts from the opera Lucia de Lammermoor and she was given the opportunity sing on Canadian radio broadcasts. Portia’s determination to become a singer wouldn’t stop her from walking 10 miles a week for music lessons.
In 1929 Portia enrolled at Dalhousie University studying to become a teacher. After graduating in the early 1930’s Portia became a schoolteacher in black communities across Nova Scotia, like Africville and Lucasville. It was in the 1930’s that honed her skills even further. Taking lessons at the Halifax Conservatory of Music supported by the Halifax Ladies’ Musical Club who provided a scholarship for her further development. It would be in the 1940’s that Portia White’s career would explode, albeit briefly, and she would gain international fame for her amazing voice.
Portia White made her formal debut at age 30 at Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium on November 7th, 1941 after giving a handful of recitals at Acadia University & Mount Allison University the year before. After her debut, she was showered with positive reviews stating that she sings “with pungent expression and beauty of utterance” and had a “coloured and beautifully shaded contralto…it is a natural voice, a gift from heaven.” Despite her amazing ability to sing, Portia did find it difficult to get bookings because of her race. Three years later Portia made her international debut performing at Town Hall, New York in 1944 being the first Canadian to perform there. This was the highpoint of her career and her performance was widely acclaimed. After her performance in New York Portia embarked on an incredibly successful tour of Canada, northern United States, and Latin America which garnered her comparisons to African-American contralto Marian Anderson. Unfortunately the extensive tours across the America’s and later Europe took a toll on Portia’s health and she suffered vocal difficulties forcing her to retire from singing in 1952.
After retiring from singing in 1952 Portia moved to Toronto to further her studies and began teaching voice privately and at Banksome Hall, a girl’s school. She would sporadically hold performances throughout the rest of her life in the 1950’s and 1960’s. One of her most famous performances cam in October 1964 when she sang for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. She died in October 1968 after a long battle with Cancer.
Portia White’s determination and talent proved to be greater than racial discrimination at the time, as her abilities were able to overcome the colour barrier. Come back again next week as we take a look at the life of a politician who broke the colour barrier in politics in Canada as we profile Lincoln Alexander, the Politician.