Above a fruit seller in a small brick building on Main Street, a group of Black railway porters made history.
The Order of Sleeping Car Porters, formed in Winnipeg in 1917, was North America’s first Black labour union. Five years later, they established offices and a meeting hall on the second storey of the building, the Craig Block, at 795 Main St.
Now, the building has hit the market, without any historical status protections or a bronze plaque to commemorate its history.
History writer Christian Cassidy said he’s seen the building, which recently housed retail store Ma’s Fishing, go up for sale once or twice in the past. Each time, he worries someone will buy it and knock it down. It’s one of last buildings that links Winnipeg to the history of its Black communities.
"I’ve done about 12 or 15 stories on Winnipeg’s Black history. I’ll come across a figure… it seems that every time he lived at a rooming house or a boarding house or something, and it’s always gone," he said, adding there seems to be greater emphasis on preserving white history.
In the early 20th century, many members of the Black community in Winnipeg were railway porters. They had come from other parts of Canada, the U.S., the Caribbean and various other places. They worked gruelling hours and suffered mistreatment at the hands of white customers and railway management.
"They were exploited. In pre-union days, there wasn’t really much to protect them," said Travis Tomchuk, curator of human rights history at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
"Complaints from passengers was enough to get you fired. There was no recourse. You could be dismissed and kicked off the train at the next stop."
There were few job opportunities open to Black men at that time, and being a porter came with a small level of prestige, said Tomchuk.
To pull together a union of Black labourers — unique on the continent — was an extraordinary feat, he said. Porters would almost certainly lose their livelihoods if even a whisper made it to management’s ears.
"It takes an immense amount of courage to begin that process," said Tomchuk.
But four porters — John Arthur Robinson, J.W. Barber, B.F. Jones and P. White — succeeded and began to fight for better wages and working conditions.
The union’s first great battle came in 1919, when it joined the Winnipeg General Strike. The railway laid off striking porters and solicited new employees from the United States.
However, the union survived and porters rejoined the railway after the general strike ended. In 1922, the union set up shop in the Craig Block, which teeters at the edge of an uncertain future.
Over time, the Craig Block became something more than a union office. The union shared the building with other Black organizations: the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to Black pride, self-sufficiency and the formation of an independent Black nation in Africa; the Railway Porters Band of Winnipeg, who played their trumpets, tubas and drums in the meeting hall; the Unity Pool Hall, which took over the fruit seller’s first floor; and the Sanitary Barber Shop.
It was also the home to Regent Lodge No. 5 of Prince Hall Lodge, a chapter of Black freemasons.
It was a hub for the Black community.
In 1961, many tenants left and only the Porters Charitable and Social Association, which had developed out of the union, remained.
Bob McDaniels, who started as a railway porter in 1972, said he’d like to see some historical protection for the building, or at least recognition.
While he hadn’t heard about the building during his own career or from his father, who was also a porter, he appreciated the significance of the Order of Sleeping Car Porters.
"Had there not been the Black porters union or the awareness that they brought to the situation, I don’t think you’d be able — as a Black person or a man of colour — to really have gotten far," said McDaniels.
Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for The Times. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies. Email him at email@example.com or call him at 204-697-7206.