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Prior to the Second World War, the majority of Black workers in Calgary were railway porters. Employment within the service sector also afforded men the chance to polish shoes on street corners and women the opportunity to work as domestic servants for wealthy White families. Early 20th-century stereotypes suggested that Blacks were only capable of working at menial, service-oriented jobs. There were a few self-employed individuals who owned local businesses, including the Chicken Inn, owned by Bob Melton and Florence Carter, and the Chicken Fry, owned by Louella and Dick Bellamy. Although they represented an extremely small proportion of the population, talented musicians generated profits by playing at various clubs and bars.

With the systematic dispelling of stereotypes and discrimination, Calgary’s Black community was able to find more diverse employment. Gradually, certain individuals' sheer hard work and determination succeeded in breaking down barriers to employment. For example, when she became a city councillor in 1974, Virnetta Anderson became the first Black Calgarian to be elected to a public post (other than that of school trustee). Her husband, “Sugarfoot” Anderson, a popular football player for the Calgary Stampeders, helped gain respect for the Black community. In the 1970s, Floyd Sneed, as the drummer for the popular band Three Dog Night, became an international star.


The job of railway porter offered a better wage than any other open to the Black community. Not only did railway porters make decent wages, but the job also provided security: there was a constant demand for railway porters, and those who worked as railway porters were held in high regard by members of their community. Porters were well dressed and wore crisp, clean suits and ties. Canadian railways were eager to hire Black porters because the position was not unionized and because the position of a railway porter reaffirmed the stereotype that Black people were docile and servile.

Work as a railway porter was a gruelling commitment. Working 18 to 20 hours a day for months at a time meant that porters rarely saw their families. Porters' responsibilities included cleaning and equipping the sleeping car before departure and regularly cleaning the washrooms and smoking rooms. Porters also had to ensure that the temperature within the train was comfortable: they would stoke the ovens in the winter and load large slabs of ice into cooling compartments in the summer.

The most challenging part of the job, however, was providing customer service. Black porters had to be expert diplomats. They were on their feet all day, serving the needs of all passengers. Forced to ignore any racist remarks, porters worked with a continual smile, hoping for a fair tip at the end of the day. Social transgressions resulted in disciplinary action. If a passenger complained about a porter, regardless of the complaint's validity, the porter had to appear before a review board. Porters were only allowed 60 demerits before they were fired; however, instant dismissal was also common, particularly if the porter had allegedly offended a woman. Not surprisingly, porters were often mistreated by their managers. Their meals differed from those enjoyed by other staff members, and they were forced to sit in segregated compartments closed off by a curtain. Sometimes, on account of a lack of suitable places to sleep, porters had to sleep in the filthy smoking cars.

The Order of Sleeping Car Porters, formed in 1917 and including both Black and White members, marked the first attempt at unionization among Canadian Black railway porters. However, in 1918, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada rejected the Order's proposal to form a union and told the porters to join the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees and Other Transport Workers, a union that forbade Black membership. Black porters made another attempt to unionize in the 1940s with the help of an American organization, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which had helped establish the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Colored People (AAACP) in Calgary. In 1953, the Canada Fair Employment Practices Act was enacted, thereby prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, colour, and religion. Through this Act, Black porters finally received better working conditions. However, by the 1960s and 1970s, the position of railway porter lost much of its prestige as other employment opportunities opened up for individuals willing to attain a higher education.

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