THE COUNTERATTACK ON DIEHARD RACISM

DAVID LEWIS STEIN October 20 1962

THE COUNTERATTACK ON DIEHARD RACISM

DAVID LEWIS STEIN October 20 1962

THE COUNTERATTACK ON DIEHARD RACISM

DAVID LEWIS STEIN

DOING GOOD, like doing so many other things these days, has become a job for specialists. One of these is A. Alan Borovoy, a thirty-year-old Toronto lawyer who makes his living fighting for “fair play" for minorities. Borovoy is the kind of ‘small-1’ liberal’ who “despises ineffectual intellectuals with no concept of action.” He was probably born thirty years too late. In another age, he might have grown up to be a crusading labor lawyer fighting the common man's court battles. As a civil rights lawyer in the Canada of 1962, he hardly ever sees the inside of a courtroom — the dramatic battles against overt and violent racists are long over here. In fact, Borovoy hardly ever comes across an honest hatemonger. His real enemy is the gentleman bigot, who keeps quiet about his prejudices. The gentleman bigot is hard to find and even harder to fight, because he practises discrimination in a courteous and often disarming manner. But that is the kind of subtle fight Borovoy specializes in. This August, he went to Halifax to practise his specialty on behalf of the city's Negroes. I went with him to find out what a professional do-gooder actually does.

Halifax is one of the last frontiers for the professional do-gooder. Within the city limits live about 2,000 Negroes, roughly a tenth of all the colored people in Canada. Most of them are crammed into a downtown slum but eighty families live in a seaside ghetto called Africville. Both Halifax and Africville Negroes are supposed to be protected by the province's fair-employment and fair-accommodation legislation. In fact, ac-

cording to Sid Blum of the CLC human rights committee, Halifax Negroes are treated worse than Negroes in any other part of Canada.

On Borovoy's first morning in Halifax, we went out to Africville. The taxi took us up Barrington, the city’s main street. Past the business section, we skirted a barren hill and crossed two sets of railroad tracks; where the pavement ends, Africville begins. Africville is a hillside overlooking Bedford Basin. For more than a hundred years, Negroes have lived on that hill in what amounts to a country village inside the city limits. The hill is covered with winding paths that lead to the houses — some of them rude shacks but others solid and substantial. In a horseshoe surrounding Africville are white subdivisions properly supplied with sewage and water. The people of Africville use only outside privies and polluted surface wells. They have, within smelling distance, a municipal garbage dump.

“WE AIN’T LIVING. WE RE JUST EXISTING”

As we left the cab a short, heavy Negro woman met us and introduced herself as Mrs. Steed. She led us up the hill to her house. Mrs. Steed is one of the leaders of Africville. For many years she was the only midwife in the village, and the first child she brought into the world is now a woman of thirty-two living only a few houses away. Mrs. Steed's husband Leon was born in Barbados and still speaks with the musical lilt of a West Indian. When he talks about Africville, he speaks with a harsh eloquence. “Our living conditions are abominable. We’re third-class citizens. All we want is what our white neighbors have. We don't

Halifax is a last stronghold of the nonviolent Canadian kind of racial prejudice.

Alan Borovoy is a, gentlemanly expert in the business of fighting gentleman bigots.

This is what happened when Borovoy weilt to Halifax to champion 2,000 victimized Neg roes

want their money, we just want the essential things of life. We ain't living now. We're just existing.”

Seated at the Steed’s dining-room table, Borovoy listened to them and four other people from Africville explain their troubles. The city is planning to take over their land and put them into apartment houses. Only a few pe.ople in Africville have clear deeds to their property. The rest are’ squatters, but their nine tenths of the law is enough to make them feel like landlords. The city is in the midst of a massive redevelopment program and has already torn down the homes of scores of people — both white and colored — in downtown Halifax. Many of these people have been placed in a city-run block of apartments called Mulgrave Park. Mulgrave Park, or anything like it, terrifies the people of Africville. For one thing, it means paying rent for the first time in their lives. For another, it means giving up their community church and their community social life. A year ago, the Steeds and a halfdozen other families formed an Africville Association to fight the city. They wrote to Sid Blum and in August, they got Borovoy, whom they regard as their lawyer.

Borovoy told me he thought the city was grossly mistreating the people of Africville because they were Negroes. He told the Africville people he would do everything he could to help them — and all the other Negroes of Halifax. In theory, his job should have been easy. He has the law on his side. The federal government prohibits discrimination in the civil service, in industries covered by federal regulations and in the sale of houses financed by NHA mortgages. Six provinces, including Nova Scotia, have fair-em-

ployment-practices and fair-accommodation-practices acts that guarantee minorities equal rights to jobs and to get service in such public places as restaurants and summer resorts. But the law can only go so far, and where the law stops, Borovoy and others like him, begin.

Four provincial labor federations and eleven city labor councils have human-rights committees that do what they can to see that antidiscrimination laws are enforced. But only three of these committees, in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg, have full-time professionals like Borovoy — his official title is executive secretary of the Toronto and District Labor Committee for Human Rights. The others rely heavily on Sid Blum, the associate secretary of the Canadian Labor Congress's human rights committee. Blum is also the man who hired Borovoy. “I heard of a young lawyer who wanted to do this kind of work,” he recalls. “We badly needed someone at the time but I didn't go after him. In this job you need a lot of idealism because you have to get along with very little money. I waited six months and sure enough, on one of my trips to Toronto, Borovoy cornered me and I put him on staff.”

“THEY WANTED A BARBER. BUT NOT MY KIND”

For over a year, Blum had been writing to Negroes in Halifax, promising them help. In August he sent them Borovoy. Borovoy’s first step was to find the people who had shown some interest in trying to help Negroes. While he rushed from interview to interview explaining his ideas for solving the city’s “Negro problem” I tried to find out exactly what the problem was.

The biggest part of it, I discovered, is finding a job. The Dalhousie Institute of Public Affairs has

prepared a thorough report on Negroes which says in part, “their depressed economic condition derives of course, in large measure, from the economic difficulties of the Maritimes. The employment problems of Negroes, however, go further than this general condition implies. They have employment opportunities even more unsatisfactory than the local average. A comparison of Halifax Negroes to the whole city population shows they earn less than the mean income, that they are unemployed for many more weeks than the average, and that occupationally they are concentrated in manual or menial jobs.” The report rather cautiously concludes that “in part, the explanation for this relatively poor employment showing may lie in racial prejudice.”

Unlike the sociologist who studied them, the Negroes seemed certain of what their problem was. This was how some of them described it;

• A prize fighter: “I studied barbering at vocational school. When I finished I went down to a shop that had a ‘barber wanted’ sign in the window. They thought I wanted a job sweeping floors; then they said they didn’t need any barbers. I went down the street and called them on a telephone. I asked if they needed a barber and they told me to come right over. I told them, ‘I'm the guy who was just there,’ and I hung up.”

• A lawyer: “When I was going to school, I would hear of a place that was hiring boys for the summer. I would go there and they would tell me

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Reply to a house-hunting Negro: “You wouldn’t be happy here”

Later some of my white friends would tell me they had got jobs at these places after I'd been turned down."

• A night watchman from Africville: "When you goes in for a job, you daren't tell them you is from Africville.'’

One manager of a firm told me he has no objections to Negroes but his help does. It isn’t the color that bothers his employees: it's the kind of homes that Negroes come from. Housing is the other big problem for Halifax Negroes. Except for a handful who live in Mulgrave Park, almost all downtown Halifax Negroes live in a clapboard slum only a few blocks away from the bustling shops and offices of Barrington Street. The Dalhousic report says that of 134 families studied (some of whose houses may have been renovated or torn down by the city's redevelopment program since 1959), "More than half lived in dwellings that were in need of major repairs; more than half had no bathing facilities: only a seventh of the families had a private toilet and only a little more than a quarter of them had mechanically produced hot water."

“The squawkers are the loafers”

The Negroes aren't the only people who live in the dilapidated houses on Maynard and Creighton Streets. The Dalhousie report points out that almost every Negro family has a white family for a neighbor. But the whites, if they can afford higher rents, can get out of the slum. The Negroes, although many of them earn good wages working for railroads or for the city, cannot.

One afternoon, I listened on an extension phone while a young Negro tried to rent a flat or an apartment outside the Negro district. He called fourteen places that were advertised in the afternoon paper. They were all within the price range of any steadily employed Negro. But only two of the people who answered the phone were willing to rent to Negroes. The rest gave answers ranging from “I’ll have to ask my husband” to “you wouldn't be happy here anyway.”

Clearly there is discrimination against Negroes in housing and employment. But there are no outspoken bigots. Instead there are white people like these:

• A hotel waiter who likes Negroes — he worked beside them when he was a sea-going waiter—hut is sure they are happier living by themselves in places like Africville.

• A businessman who has no Negroes working for him but says he would have no objection to hiring one if a Negro applied for a job. After all. his wife has a Negro char.

• Manuel Zive. the first Jew to be elected president of the Halifax Board of Trade, who believes Negroes should "start pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. The ones doing the

squawking are the ones who won't do anything to better themselves.”

• Mayor John E. Lloyd who said, “If people in the southern U. S. treated Negroes as well as we do in Halifax, they would have no racial problem. And you can quote me on that.”

Attitudes like these are enough to freeze most Negroes into their slum streets and their unskilled jobs. In fact, some of them told me they would be better off in the southern U. S. A southern Negro at least has signs to tell him where not to go. Halifax Negroes say they never know what to expect when they walk through a white man’s door. Most Negroes prefer to stay where they know the rules. They may work beside, and even live beside, whites, but after five o’clock they retire to their own Oddfellows and Masonic lodges and their own branch of the Canadian Legion. On Sundays they worship at their own branch of the African United Baptist Church. The Negroes are as much prisoners of their own fear as of the white man’s malice.

I had been told that several restaurants in Halifax would not serve Negroes. One night, two Negroes tested eleven of the city’s better places to eat. They drank, as one of them put it, “four hundred cups of coffee for the cause” and proved that a Negro— at least a clean-cut well-dressed one—• would be served in all eleven restaurants. Maybe things are different in the greasy spoons where most Halifax Negroes would be likely to spend their money. But no one knew for sure. No one had systematically tried them all.

The mechanics of do-gooding

This kind of testing is the best way to catch a bigot with his guard down. Borovoy wanted to run systematic tests in Halifax but there were things he had to do first. One of these was find people who were already trying to help Negroes, or were willing to help. The Voice of Women had tried to find summer jobs for colored high school students. The human rights committee of the Halifax Labor Council and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People—the “secular arm” of African United Baptist Church — had done what they could to get action on the few FEP and FAP complaints that had come their way. The city’s leading Baptist church had been running a day camp for Africville children. The Africville Association itself had written to Sid Blum. But communications among all these organizations had broken down. The Africville people complained bitterly that except for the First Baptist Church no one from the city ever bothered with them. The city people explained that they were never invited. And, they said, it just wouldn't be right for city people to force themselves on the people from Africville.

Borovoy's first job was to get the people of these groups talking to one another. This he did by calling them to a meeting at his hotel. Then, he had to give them something to talk about. Seated in the centre of a horseshoe of white and black faces, Borovoy, wearing slacks and an open shirt, held forth on the mechanics of doing good

The first thing he suggested was

that they constitute themselves an advisory council. They would come to this council as individuals rather than as delegates from organizations. That way they could decide to do something and act quickly on their decisions. Then they could go back to whatever organizations they belonged to and try to enlist support. The second thing Borovoy suggested was that they immediately collect enough support to make up a delegation to ask the labor minister to spend more money publicizing the fair-employment and fair-accommodation legislation. Everybody liked that idea, it was simple and straightforward. About Borovoy's third suggestion — testing—they were more hesitant.

“It isn't as popular as going to a brotherhood banquet,” Borovoy explained. “But it's a hell of a lot more important.”

In a proper test, Borovoy said, a white and a Negro, as evenly matched as possible in age and income, try to get jobs, apartments or service in restaurants and other public places. If the Negro is turned down, then the white tries and if the white is successful, then the case is made. Where the case is covered by law, as in employment, then the testers must be willing to do everything the law' provides for—including taking a day off work to testify in court. Where the case isn't covered by law, as in the rental of flats and apartments, they should do everything possible to publicly embarrass the bigoted landlord.

"Some people say we're troublemakers,” Borovoy said. "I say we're trouble-finders. They say w'c should take our time and try to educate people to accept these things slowly. My answer to these people is ‘Nuts!’ If we wait for people to love each other, we can wait an eternity.”

The hardest place to prove discrimination is in employment. The easiest place is in apartment houses and Borovoy suggested the testers try these first. Finding a place to live is obviously not as important as finding a job. But the fight against discrimination, Borovoy explained, is waged on several fronts at once. By publicly embarrassing landlords, the .testers would draw out the good people and make bigoted employers nervous. The employers could never be sure that the Negro they turned away wasn't a tester who would later charge them under the FEP act. “Our philosophy." Borovoy said, “is to make people uncomfortable.”

As an example of what could be done with the results of a systematic test, Borovoy told them how he had lobbied for an amendment to Ontario's fair-accommodation-practices act. After two surveys of Toronto apartment houses showed that some landlords were refusing to rent to Negroes, Borovoy and others in the labor movement began to urge church groups, service clubs, welfare organizations and even municipal councils to petition the provincial government for the amendment. In January 1961, he was able to assemble in Premier Leslie Frost's office petitioners representing thirty-nine organizations. A few months later the amendment was passed — it prohibits discrimination in apartment houses of more than six units — and Borovoy's name was read into the minutes of the debate.

In Halifax, Borovoy could only make a beginning. Testing is a slow and often tedious job. 1 had expected some opposition to him. It was all very well for Borovoy to talk tough: he was going back to Toronto. The others w'ould have to live with whatever bitterness their testing created. But they were eager to keep their advisory council going and eager to start testing. Once a professional had shown them what they could do, the amateurs were willing to do it. Borovoy's job in Halifax w-as almost finished. But there was still Africvilic.

“YouYe not alone any more”

The night after the hotel meeting Borovoy was to speak to a meeting of the Africville Association. Africvilic, it turned out, is one of those problems that battle and frustrate the professional do-gooder. Racial prejudice may have created Africville. but what threatens it now is dreams of civic progress. The city has already acknowledged responsibility for what may happen to the people of Africville and has in fact, gone a step further. The city manager has recommended payment to the squatters, even though these people have only a tenuous legal claim to their land. There is still a lot of hard bargaining to be done between the city and Africville before the bulldozers actually move in. But this is not a job for a civil rights crusader. The people of Africville need the services of a real-estate expert—or even a sociologist — when they sit down to bargain whh the city. But, waiting to hear Borovoy in Africville's Baptist church, they knew' only that he was their lawyer, and had come to help them.

“I have no magic answers.” he explained. “but last night, there was a meeting in the Nova Scotian Hotel. Some representatives of yours w'ere there and so were a lot of other people, both w'hite and Negro. We talked not just about the problems of Africville but of all the Halifax Negroes. At least this much has happened—you're not alone any more. Now' there are people like Mrs. Maclean of the Voice of Women w'ho want to help you. She's a wonderful woman and 1 hope you’ll invite her out here and that she'll invite you into Halifax. It's up to you. I can't come back here every week or even every month. But if I have at least introduced a few' people from Halifax to one another, I can go back to Toronto happy."

That was really all that Borovoy had been able to do. As a crusader for human rights, he hadn’t talked to or even met a single outspoken bigot. All his work had been done among people who were sympathetic to him. He had shown them how to do something about their good intentions. The things to be done are undramatic and slow'. But they arc enough to break dow'n the barriers of racial prejudice.

When Borovoy had finished talking. Mrs. Steed rose in her pew. “When I got into this,” she said. “I didn't know it would mean so much work. But now we have friends who want to help us. This is the first time in our history that people from Africville have gone into a meeting like the one Mr. Borovoy called. We've done a lot and with the help of God. we'll keep going.” ★