Faces of Black Excellence

How a Jamaican immigrant finally got white shop owners to accept Black customers in Canada

In Canada, racism was not enshrined in its laws like in the United States and the United Kingdom but if one was Black, they were bound to encounter racial discrimination from majority white citizens.

Even the small town of Dresden, Ontario, which used to be a safe haven for freed men or enslaved persons of African descent, accentuated the racial mistreatment. By the end of the Second World War, the Black population in Dresden had hit 20 percent but restaurants and barbershops operated by whites would not serve them. A place which used to offer the Black community some respite had now been taken over by racism and social injustice.  

This triggered several social campaigns and protests targeted at racial equality and social justice by human rights activists championed by the National Unity Association (NUA) of Chatham, Dresden and North Buxton.

Finally, the campaigns yielded results with the passage of laws criminalizing discrimination in the housing sector and public places in Ontario. But, this victory remained a pipe dream because the Dresden Town Council refused to dissuade whites from discriminating against Blacks.

When this was brought to the attention of Bromley Lloyd Armstrong, a Black trade unionist, community organizer and activist, he was deeply worried. He decided to join “sit-ins” at restaurants in Dresden that prohibited Blacks from accessing their services. 

The sit-in “tests” were organized by the Toronto-based Joint Labour Committee to Combat Racial Intolerance in conjunction with the NUA. The sit-ins were staged with the involvement of the media and became an important tool of resistance for members who were campaigning for racial equality and social justice in Canada and the United States. 

In the records, the Canadian sit-ins began before those in the U.S. Armstrong in the company of Ruth Lor Malloy, a Chinese Canadian who was secretary of the Student Christian Movement at the University of Toronto, joined Hugh Burnett to Kay’s Café in 1954 where they were prohibited from accessing any service.

This was the first in a series of sit-ins at Kay’s Café. At a point in time, Armstrong felt the owner of the place, Morley McKay, would attack him because Morley was angry at the frequency of the tests.

The Dresden sit-ins attracted massive media attention in the Canadian dailies. The human rights activists did not let the campaign sit in the media alone, but, sent delegations to the legislature until Ontario Premier Leslie Frost publicly assured of the province’s commitment to anti-discrimination laws.

This prompted the authorities to establish the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1961, the first of its kind in Canada and one of the first human rights commissions in the world.

Armstrong and Ruth Lot Malloy did not stop there. They took their campaign to the housing sector as well. It was the first rent-ins in Canada aimed at desegregating the housing sector. They pretended to be a couple responding to advertised vacancies. When they were informed the rooms had already been taken, they sent in a white couple who were offered the very same room. The campaign brought the attention of the authorities to the social injustice in the housing sector and had it addressed.

Armstrong was born in Kingston, Jamaica, into a family with ties to the labor movement. He was the fourth of seven children born to Eric Vernon and Edith Miriam Armstrong. They instilled in him a strong work ethic and a love for athletics.

He is said to have picked an interest in unionism and social mobilization from his parents in his early years. After the Second World War, Armstrong and his brother George decided to emigrate to Canada in search of better opportunities.

Stephen Nartey

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