History

A town divided

Racism once flourished in the town of Dresden, Ont.

SUE FERGUSON September 10 2001
History

A town divided

Racism once flourished in the town of Dresden, Ont.

SUE FERGUSON September 10 2001

A town divided

Racism once flourished in the town of Dresden, Ont.

SUE FERGUSON

For a few short years after the Second World War, Dresden, Ont., found itself in the eye of a media storm—albeit for reasons that, still today, many residents are reluctant to discuss. In taking aim at this small southwestern Ontario farming community, the press did not mince words. “Jim Crow lives in Dresden,” “Official sent to Dresden in racial fuss,” and “I saw race hatred in a Canadian town” headlined stories condemning segregation in a number of the towns businesses. Only through the relentless efforts of the National Unity Association, an organization of local blacks, and its labour and civilrights supporters in Toronto, did Dresden, in the mid-1950s, put this unhappy period behind it. That many today are uncomfortable revisiting the events is no surprise to University of Ottawa law professor Constance Backhouse. Despite an inglorious record on race issues, Backhouse says, “Canadians don’t want to admit to racism, and get extraordinarily offended if anybody calls anything they do racist.”

The Dresden area has a long, proud history in the struggle against racism. Between 1820 and 1860, it was an important terminus of the Underground Railroad. About 20,000 blacks fleeing U.S. slavery settled there. Among them was Josiah Henson, a fugitive slave from Kentucky who arrived in 1830. Aided by abolitionist clergy, he bought 200 acres of land on the Sydenham River where Dresden now stands and established the Dawn Settlement. Cleared and farmed by former slaves, it lasted until 1868. After its demise, many black families stayed on.

By the 1940s, Dresden’s 300 blacks and 1,400 whites attended the same schools and shopped at the same stores. But not all venues were as accommodating. Factories, like the local canning plant, were only just beginning to hire blacks on the lines, and many social clubs and churches denied them membership. Such restrictions, says Barbara G. Carter, a great-great-granddaughter of Henson who lives on Dresden’s outskirts, created “painful memories.” As a young girl in the 1950s, Carter recalls walking downtown with her white friends after school. When the others turned into the drugstore for a soda, she couldn’t enter. “One wonders,” she says, “why it had to go to that extent when my great-great-grandfather was founder of this community.”

In 1943, Hugh Burnette, a black carpenter from Dresden, also wondered why. He filed a complaint that year with the federal justice minister about Kay’s Café, which had refused him service. The response? Burnette was on his own: no law prevented such discrimination. A few years later, Alvin Ladd, a friend of Burnette’s who lived in nearby Chatham, was refused service at that town’s William Pitt Hotel. Ladd, now 81 and the only founding member of the National Unity Association still living, recalls the incident vividly. A driver with the city’s works department and an active union member, he entered the hotel with white colleagues around 9 p.m. “We ordered a drink and they served us,” he says. “Then we ordered another and the waiter came back and said, ‘Im sorry, we can’t serve him! ” Ladd wasn’t surprised: “Of course, I knew they didn’t serve [black] people. I figured they would refuse me when we first went in.”

Burnette, Ladd and Burnette’s uncle Bill Carter decided to join forces. Gathering together another nine local black men, they formed the NUA. Although the association took up a variety of race-related issues, it focused its activities on Dresden. Unlike the owner of the William Pitt Hotel, who folded in the face of opposition, the Dresden proprietors proved uncompromising. The man who came to personify white racism was Morley McKay, the owner of Kay’s and a fixture in the community since 1922.

McKay, along with the owners of Emerson’s Restaurant and Fitzgerald’s Grill and all four of the town’s barbershops, believed blacks would drive away their white patrons—and profits. Although other downtown operations stayed afloat while serving blacks, it did not register with the owners, leading many to suspect the spectre of financial ruin was more an excuse than a reason. That is certainly the impression left by journalist Sidney Katz in a 1949 Macleans story. When it came to serving blacks, McKay told Katz: “It’s a feeling I can’t quite explain. Do you know that for three days afterward I get raging mad every time I see a Negro. Maybe it’s like an animal who’s had a smell of blood.”

Six years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus, the NUA launched a petition, collecting the signatures of 115 prominent community members of both races. In the absence of provincial legislation, the NUA asked town council to attach a nondiscrimination rider to the business licences it granted. Council refused, citing powerlessness in the face of the private sector. Instead, the people of Dresden would decide. “Do you approve the passing of legislation compelling restaurant owners to serve, regardless of race, creed or colour?” read the Dec. 6,1949, ballot. The result: 517 against, 108 in favour.

However disappointing the outcome for the anti-discrimination forces, publicity generated by the referendum bolstered the NUA’s support. The Toronto Association for Civil Liberties, backed by the Canadian Jewish Labor Committee, began to pressure the Conservative provincial government. Finally, in 1951, Ontario premier Leslie Frost signed the Fair Employment Practices Act, and three years later, the Fair Accommodations Practices Act. (The former oudawed discrimination in hiring, the latter banned discrimination in serving at public establishments.)

But prosecuting under the new law proved to be almost as big a challenge as winning passage in the first place. The NUA arranged to have out-of-town blacks, who wouldn’t be recognized, enter Dresden’s commercial establishments and ask for service. Kay’s Cafe still refused. It was only after eight complaints and two hearings that the government finally took McKay to trial. He was found guilty and ordered to pay a $ 100 fine plus $600 in court costs. Looking back, many residents are resentful of the media. One longtime white resident who asked not to be named told Macleans-. “We were very happy, living together, black and white. It was the news media that stirred it all up.” Joe Faas, who came to Dresden as a child in 1952 and served as mayor from 1990 to 1998, echoes that sentiment: “The media was having a field day.” But Faas stands out among his white contemporaries for agreeing to go on the record with Macleans—some residents would prefer to forget the town’s bad old days. When asked about Kay’s, an otherwise chatty middle-aged waitress working at a downtown restaurant pursed her lips, saying tersely: “It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.” Gwen Robinson, a black part-time hairdresser and community historian in Chatham, suggests people’s resistance to reopening old wounds may be fuelled by feelings that Dresden has been unfairly targeted. “I don’t like to single out any place,” Robinson says. “The restaurants didn’t welcome blacks in Chatham either.”

Nefarious forms of discrimination did mark towns and cities right across Canada, says Prof. Backhouse. Segregation was “very widespread” and, adds the author of ColourCoded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950, “always moving—AfricanCanadians could never tell ahead of time what was segregated and what wasn’t. You had to know the community to be aware of who and what facilities discriminated.” But, she says, refusing to discuss the past is not a remedy: “Glossing over it is very Canadian, but very wrong.” Robinson, who since 1996 has curated an exhibit showcasing the history of Chatham’s black community, agrees. “It is only by communicating,” she says, “that we will bring some understanding to the situation.” And telling the story, Robinson agrees, is a crucial first step. GO