Hardships and brotherhood: Artist tells the story of Black train porters

photo Morgan Reuber

Hop the train and ride into the past.

Just off Brunette Avenue there’s a 1970s-era yellow caboose that looks it got left behind while the rest of the train tumbled toward the freight yard and oblivion.

Inside that caboose, artist Lolu Oyedele is preparing to conjure up pieces of the past with a performance entitled The Porter’s Revival.


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This Friday, he’s set to don the uniform and tell a bit of the story of the men who made labour history and changed the course of Canada: the Black train porters.

photo N. Shepherd

Porters shined shoes, pressed clothes and served food for primarily white passengers over eight straight sleep-deprived days as their train criss-crossed the country. The porter’s duties could extend to nursing sick passengers as well as ensuring absent-minded riders didn’t miss their stop or forget any luggage.

Reserving the job of porters for Black men was, according to one historian, an attempt to re-create the hospitality synonymous with antebellum Southern mansions and Black male servants.

The porters suffered many hardships including not having a place to sleep, Oyedele notes. But there’s a history beyond those hardships.

“The more I read the more I saw these sparks of beauty,” he says.

photo Morgan Reuber

The porters formed a brotherhood, banding together to look after fellow workers, picking up the slack when someone was sick. At a time when unions like the Canadian Brotherhood of Railroad Employees wouldn’t have anything to do with Black workers, the porters formed their own union.

In 1917, the Order of Sleeping Car Porters became the first Black labour union in North America, improving wages and job protections for all porters regardless of race, according to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

“I don’t think [the porters] started it thinking it was going to be a historical moment, Oyedele says. “They knew that every new porter that was enlisted onto the trains was going to have a better life.”

Oyedele says he’s hoping to reach Coquitlam’s Black community with Friday’s performance.

“I’m a Black man and so whenever I make anything I’m speaking from that experience,” he says.

photo Morgan Reuber

However, there are also elements of the story of the porters that transcends race, he says.

“When you see someone tenacious, when you see someone fight for what they believe in . . . that can be inspiring no matter who you are.”

In his book, They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada, author Cecil Foster credits the porters for fighting to create a new Canada.

“We should always remember this was not a fight they were guaranteed to win,” Foster writes. “Against great odds, the sleeping car porters sacrificed themselves and all that they had to put a stick in the wheels, figuratively speaking, that were driving Canada toward a different destination. The train porters turned Canada black, brown and a host of other shades.”

Finding the story

Born in Nigeria and raised in South Africa, Oyedele was unfamiliar with Coquitlam’s history when he started his tenure as artist-in-residence at Coquitlam Heritage.

“I kind of came in blind and blank,” he says.

Finding the story of Black porters allowed Oyedele to immerse himself in another time.

Finding an accurate porter uniform took quite a while. Seeing himself in that uniform was “a little uncanny,” he notes.

“That’s part of the performance of living in both worlds,” he says, adding that his performance includes: “a bit of time bending.”

It’s crucial to remember that the porters’ struggle didn’t end when the train stopped, Oyedele explains.

“I think it’s deeply relevant in 2023 because we have people fighting for equal rights right now,” he says.

Oyedele’s nine-minute performance is set to include song, dance and spoken word. Four time slots are available. Registration is required. The event is free.

More info here.


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