George Hutchinson Beckford seemed determined to avoid a career as a railway porter. In the end, though, he spent nearly 35 years with the CPR and became one of the city's most respected labour leaders of the 1940s and 50s.

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George Hutchinson Beckford seemed determined to avoid a career as a railway porter. In the end, though, he spent nearly 35 years with the CPR and became one of the city's most respected labour leaders of the 1940s and 50s.

Born in and raised in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Beckford apprenticed as a machinist before coming to Winnipeg in 1913. He quickly found his career options here were extremely limited, as the vast majority of black men worked as porters for one of the city's four main railways. For a small number of them, becoming an entrepreneur and opening a barbershop or restaurant was their way out. It was a path Beckford hoped to take.

George Hutchinson Beckford

CANADIAN LABOUR CONGRESS ARCHIVES

George Hutchinson Beckford

The 24-year-old's first local job was as a porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway, but he lasted less than a year. By September 1914 he had obtained a chauffeur's licence, advertising himself in newspaper classified ads as "Chauffeur (colored), experienced, seeks position, private or commercial."

Beckford did get work as a private chauffeur and by 1916 was driving his own taxi.

In late 1917, his career was put on hold when he was drafted into military service with the 1st Depot Battalion (Manitoba Regiment). He arrived in Britain in April 1918, just months before the First World War ended, and the following year was sent to France with the Commonwealth War Graves Detachment. These men had the unenviable, but necessary, task of combing the former battlefields for the tens of thousands of corpses and other remains that had been buried in craters or makeshift graves and exhuming them for relocation to formal cemeteries.

The work was slow, dirty and physically demanding. Just a couple of months into it, Beckford developed a severe pain in his back. Fearing he may have contracted malaria, he was pulled from duty and sent to a military hospital, where he was diagnosed with spondylitis, an inflammation of the joints in the spine. A man with a bad back was of little use to the detachment, so he was promptly discharged.

Beckford arrived home in late August 1919. In need of a quick job to re-establish himself, he signed on as a porter with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. A few months later, he was a mechanic at an auto garage.

If Beckford was avoiding a career with the railway, he had good reason. Despite the stereotypical image of the smiling porter, the job was gruelling. They were expected to look after hundreds of travellers by making their beds, serving coffee, cleaning toilets and running errands. Their workdays were as long as the train journey they were part of, usually 72 to 100 hours. They were not assigned berths of their own but rather expected to catnap throughout the trip to get their rest.

Musician Olie Wagner and his Knights of Harlem outside the Unity Pool Room in 1940. Most members of the band, including Cecil Lewsey, Clarence Lewsey and Percy Haynes were also railway porters.

OWEN CLARK COLLECTION

Musician Olie Wagner and his Knights of Harlem outside the Unity Pool Room in 1940. Most members of the band, including Cecil Lewsey, Clarence Lewsey and Percy Haynes were also railway porters.

During the First World War, things got worse for porters as trains were pressed into constant service to shuttle soldiers around the country. To free up able-bodied white men for the war effort, the railways decreed other passenger-car jobs, such as cooks and waiters, were to become "coloured-only" positions. This left most of the train's staff, except the engine crew, in the same predicament of earning very low pay and working long hours.

Winnipeg was a hub of railway activity and a meeting place for porters from points east, west and south. It might be no surprise, then, that this is where they tried to organize themselves to demand better working conditions.

In the spring of 1917, a small group of local porters led by John A. Robinson tried to organize porters with the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees (CBRE), but was refused because the union did not accept black members. Undeterred, they created an independent union called the Order of Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP), said to be the first black union in North America.

The biggest test for the new organization came during the Winnipeg General Strike. Members voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action, and 99 of them walked off the job in May 1919. The railways began importing porters from the U.S. to take their place and, when they issued an ultimatum to the men to return to work or be fired, only 29 went back. Ads for permanent railway porters ran in the newspapers throughout the summer of 1919.

In 1920, Beckford again went back to the railway, this time as a porter with the CNR. He saved enough to purchase a Main Street café in 1926 he ran on the side, but the venture lasted only a couple of years. He ended up spending the rest of his working life as a CNR porter.

Beckford moved around a great deal, even after his marriage to Norean in the late 1920s. He lived at numerous rooming houses that catered to porters on streets such as Selkirk, Banning, Bannatyne and Elgin. One address that remained a constant during his career, though, was 795 Main St.

In 1922, the OSCP rented offices and a meeting hall on the upper floor. They were joined by the local branch of the American-based Universal Negro Improvement Association. By the end of the decade, the main floor of the building was home to a black pool hall called the Unity Pool Room, which also featured a lunch counter and barbershop. It became a hub for the city's black community for decades to come.

Beckford was involved in the OSCE, but it wasn't until the 1940s, when John A. Robinson was nearing retirement, that he came to the fore.

Though he was a machinist by background, Beckford was constantly educating himself, describing his personal pursuits as being "a student of political history, economics, psychology and public speaking." This made him a popular and sought-after member of Winnipeg's labour community.

Through the 1940s and '50s he held numerous executive positions, including chairman, with the OSCE, which by that time was called Division 130 of the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees and represented porters and other passenger-car staff from Thunder Bay to Vancouver.

He was also elected to various executive positions within the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees itself, the union that once wouldn't let him join because of the colour of his skin.

In 1942, Beckford became the treasurer of the Winnipeg Labour Council, a position he held for a dozen years. Described as eloquent and hard-nosed when he had to be, the council chose him to attend numerous national conferences on their behalf. He was also their appointee to their Worker's Compensation Board of Manitoba advisory committee and the province's Minimum Wage Board.

A key theme Beckford stressed throughout his time with the Winnipeg Labour Council was improved education. As part of the Labour Education Association, a sort of speakers bureau, he gave talks at halls and the University of Manitoba campus about the Workers Compensation Act. He also pushed for better vocational training in the city's regular school system. This got him appointed to the Winnipeg School Division's advisory committee on what would become Tec Voc High School.

Beckford ran unsuccessfully for city council twice under the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation banner in 1948 and 1949.

He presented a wide-ranging platform to electors, and one of its main planks would not sound out of place in 2016. He wanted the city to move away from its heavy reliance on residential property. To do this, he proposed taxing railway land and selling off City Hydro. He also wanted the city to pressure senior levels of government to share more of their income directly with its municipalities, where much of that wealth was created.

On March 31, 1954, Beckford retired from the CNR at the age of 65. He also stepped away from the Winnipeg Labour Council and his union positions.

At one of his final council meetings, he announced he was going to spend some of his spare time writing a book called People I Met, about his years on the rails. Sadly, it appears he did not get around to publishing it.

In retirement, the man who spent most of his adult life travelling finally settled down. He and Norean bought their first house on Notre Dame Avenue at Dagmar Street.

George Hutchingson Beckford died on Feb. 20, 1976 at the age of 86.

 

Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.

Christian Cassidy

Christian Cassidy
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