Chapter 20 of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s looks at race and racism

Flying Officer Wilson O. Brooks, a Second World War veteran with the Royal Canadian Air Force, was a teacher at Williamson Road Public School in the 1950s. He went on to be the first Black principal of a Toronto school.

Below is Chapter 20 of BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s.

Every Tuesday over the next few months, Beach Metro News will post up another chapter of the book on our website at https://beachmetro.com/ for readers to enjoy.

To see our earlier story on Black, and to read Chapter One, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/14/former-residents-book-looks-back-on-growing-up-in-the-beach-in-the-fifties/

Hard copies of the book BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s are now available locally at Book City on Queen Street East and Danforth Avenue and at The Great Escape Book Store on Kingston Road. For more information on the book or to order a copy, please contact Black at kandjomemee@gmail.com

 BOOM: A Child of the Beach in Toronto Remembers the 50s

CHAPTER 20: ‘’

By KEITH BLACK

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo,

Catch a tiger by the toe

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo,

Except we did not say “tiger”. We said that other word. Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo was one of the ways we determined who was “it” or who got first pick when choosing a team. We said it a lot, but I for one never thought about what it meant and I suspect none of my friends did either. Nor did we ever question it. I don’t remember anyone ever telling us that we shouldn’t say it. It was a non-issue.

In earlier chapters I have written about Faults of the Fifties, which were attitudes and expressions that were common at the time but are unacceptable today. That was one of them.

The thing about the Beach in the 1950s was it was white. It wasn’t just white; it was Anglo-Saxon white. And it was Protestant white.

Who were my friends and schoolmates in those years? Well, there was Tim, Brian, Paul, Ron, Dave (we had a lot of Daves), Don, Rick, John (lots of those, too), Bill, Neil, Ken, Peter, and Larry.  On the distaff side there was Ann, Joyce, Margaret, Carolyn, Marilyn, Melanie, Janet, Tammy, Barbie, Debbie, and a few Susans. The surnames of all of these kids sounded like they lived in Bayport, or River Heights, the towns in which the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew resided — white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant towns.

Throughout the Fifties there was one fellow in school with us who was of Japanese descent. His name was Donny and he had been born in the Beach. He was a good guy and great third baseman. You might say that he was The Williamson Road Visible Minority, but we didn’t notice.

And then, around 1958, a new teacher appeared at the school named Mr. Brooks. Mr. Brooks holds a unique distinction; he was Black and he could very well have been the first Black person that I had ever met face to face; in the flesh. Really! I could be wrong about that, but I don’t think so. And I was 11 years old!

Now this doesn’t mean that I wasn’t aware of the existence of Black people; far from it. I knew Chuck Berry. And I knew Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price, Fats Domino, Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, and The Drifters, and The Platters. They were all friends of mine on that marvelous machine, the radio. My father often played his records so I also knew Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Count Basie and The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots. All of them were Black and I knew it.

Incidentally, what I didn’t know was that my teacher, Mr. Brooks, was Flying Officer Wilson O. Brooks of the Royal Canadian Air Force and he had served in the Second World War. Why weren’t we told this? He would eventually become the first Black principal of a Toronto school.

I knew another name as well; Orval Faubus. Orval Faubus wasn’t Black. You may recall I mentioned that in 1956 or 1957, I started to pay a little more attention to the stories in the newspaper and no longer automatically skipped to the comic section.  I also began to watch more of the evening news on television.

Orval Faubus was the governor of the state of Arkansas and he was often in the news in the late Fifties, particularly in 1957. In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled that segregation was unconstitutional. But when 9 Black students showed up at Central High School in Little Rock, Governor Faubus wouldn’t let them in while many white students yelled and screamed at them, spit on them, and otherwise intimidated them.

Throughout September of 1957, the films of the unfolding events appeared on our TV while photos and stories appeared daily in the newspaper.

Similar events were occurring elsewhere in the U.S. south and we were made aware of and witnessed many of them. I vaguely remember one situation in which one young lady of 15, Dorothy Counts, entered a school in Charlotte, North Carolina but found herself being the only Black student in the school. Can you imagine the trepidation she felt each morning? The taunts and threats became too much; she was forced to quit and allow herself to be bused to an all-Black school. I have definite memories of my mother repeatedly castigating the behaviour of Faubus and the actions of many whites in the U.S. south. Oddly, I don’t recall my father saying much.

Looking back on it now, I realize that I was exposed to the spectre of racism much earlier than those events of 1956-57 via the stereotypical portrayal of Black people in movies, on the radio, on television, and in books.

I remember reading Little Black Sambo or, maybe having it read to me; the story was unflattering to say the least, but the illustrations were positively obnoxious. In 1956 there was considerable debate in Toronto surrounding the proposed banning of the book and a film of the same name from the city’s schools. The debate became quite heated at times, with those against the ban comparing it to Nazi book-burning. Predictably, most of those involved in the fracas were white.

In her 1960 book To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s memorable character Atticus Finch says “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”.

What Atticus, who was white, doesn’t tell us is how exactly do we do that. Can we do it? One of those in favour of the ban was Frank Tumpane, a columnist for the Toronto Telegram who simply wrote, “If I want to find out how a Negro feels about something I don’t ask an Irishman. I ask a Negro”.

On Feb. 16, 1956 a young Black Toronto student, Julia Kirkwood, entered the fray by writing a letter to the editor stating, “I don’t understand how someone can comment on a subject he has never experienced….ridicule because of color”.

The book and film were banned. Ms. Kirkwood became a much loved teacher at Balmy Beach Public School in the Beach and was the coach of the girls’ volleyball team leading them to numerous championships. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 75.

And what was the effect on me at the time? I am grappling with that. It is difficult to understand my feelings and emotions then without allowing my subsequent thoughts and experiences from asserting themselves.

I believe that I couldn’t comprehend why these folks were being treated that way; they seemed perfectly “normal” to me. But at the same time, because of where I lived and because of all of the people who were part of my life, it was somewhat like an earthquake striking a far-off obscure land that I had never heard of. I saw it, I thought “Gee, that’s not good”, and then I carried on with my life.

In the late Sixties, I became a voracious reader of history; social, economic, cultural, and political, with considerable emphasis on The United States. The history of that country is truly fascinating, complex, riveting and, at times, unbelievably weird. Where else would people revere a fellow named Patrick Henry and often recite his famous declaration “Give me liberty, or give me death”.  At the time of his passing in 1799, Patrick Henry “owned” 67 human beings; he was a slave owner!  Whose liberty? Whose death?

In his 1974 book The Glory and the Dream, author William Manchester suggested that a new verb be added to the dictionary.

Faubus (faw-bus) v. 1. To commit an error of enormous magnitude through malice and ignorance. 2. To make a serious error, to commit a fault through stupidity or mental confusion.

Yes, the Beach of the Fifties was white. But what about the rest of Toronto?

It is estimated that in the mid-Fifties there were only about 30,000 Black residents in the city. And what about other visible minorities? Well, 1957 was a year of substantial immigration and in that year, 1,740 people arrived from China, 204 from Japan, 924 from the remainder of Asia which would include Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines, 152 from Central America and Mexico, 1,217 from the West Indies, and about 3,300 from the African Continent, many of whom may have been whites from the European Colonies. There were also 9,092 folks who arrived from the U.S., many of whom may have been Black. But these numbers are for the entire country.In that same year, there were over 102,000 arrivals from the British Isles.

And what about the “invisible” minorities. There were 28,000 Italians, 31,000 Hungarians, 26,000 Germans, 11,000 Dutch, 8,000 Danes, and many thousands of Europeans from other countries who arrived that year, and, of course, most of them did not speak English.

I remember hearing conversations about DP’s which was a term that was applied to most of those arriving from Europe. DP meant Displaced Person which is exactly what many of them were; they were fleeing from massive devastation, chaos, economic turmoil and possibly homelessness wrought by the war. But DP had become a derogatory term. I heard it, I absorbed it, and I carried on.

I remember being in an automobile in 1953 or 1954; I don’t know where we were going but it was a long way out of the city. I wasn’t paying much attention to our surroundings and was probably reading or playing a game when an adult in the car mentioned that we were then driving through an Indian Reservation. I immediately sat up and peered out the windows. I don’t really know what I expected to see, but I suspect it was teepees, wigwams, horses, chiefs and braves, or maybe Hawkeye’s buddy, Chingachgook, and perhaps Pocahontas.

What a disappointment; all I saw were houses and cars and bikes and trikes. The houses maybe were not as nice as those in the Beach and the cars may have been older and a bit rundown, but, otherwise, it all looked “normal”.

The Indigenous people of this country were the invisible visible minority. They weren’t talked about, thought about or discussed, except by kids playing Cowboys and Indians. They only existed in our imaginations and on television. There were few, if any, in Toronto that I was aware of.

The Beach of the Fifties was Anglo-Saxon white, while the rest of the city was simply white. This was the community in which we, the Baby Boom generation, first lived.

We Boomers experienced changes in demographics in the city more diversified and extreme than any changes witnessed by any other generation before or since. By 2016 when most of the cohort were in their sixties, more than half of the residents of the City of Toronto belonged to a visible minority. People are often resistant to change, but I think that generally the majority of the Baby Boomers have adapted reasonably well.

Was there racism in the Fifties? Don’t ask me. Ask a person of colour.

But I think that it is human nature that everyone, regardless of race, automatically develops subliminal thoughts, opinions, biases and prejudices and then, over time, they are forced to confront and reevaluate them as situations, events and relationships arise. Unfortunately, many don’t respond well, with honesty and common sense; they rationalize or don’t think at all.

As for me? Now? I have thought a lot about it, and hope and think that I have done well.

But I recently heard an African-American member of the U.S. Senate state that “The question shouldn’t be are you a racist? The question is what are you doing about racism?”

Perhaps, then, I am not doing as well as I thought. However, I believe that my extensive reading of history has been an immense benefit.

I’m also glad that I met Flying Officer Brooks and had him as my teacher. I wish that I had met Julia Kirkwood.

To read earlier chapters of BOOM, please see below:

To read Chapter Two, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/21/chapter-two-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Three, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/07/28/chapter-three-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Four, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/04/chapter-four-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Five, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/11/chapter-five-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Six, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/18/chapter-six-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Seven, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/08/25/chapter-seven-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Eight, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/01/chapter-eight-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter Nine, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/08/chapter-nine-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 10, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/15/chapter-10-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 11, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/22/chapter-11-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 12, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/09/29/chapter-12-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

Tor read Chapter 13, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/06/chapter-13-of-boom-tells-how-the-garden-gate-became-the-goof/

To read Chapter 14, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/13/chapter-14-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beaches-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s-looks-back-at-the-night-hurricane-hazel-hit/

To read Chapter 15, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/20/rock-and-roll-arrives-in-chapter-15-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 16, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/10/27/marilyn-bell-swims-the-lake-and-other-memorable-moments-in-chapter-16-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 17, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/11/03/chapter-17-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s-looks-back-at-some-classic-tv-shows/

To read Chapter 18, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/11/10/hockey-night-in-canada-and-other-tv-memories-in-chapter-18-of-boom-a-child-of-the-beach-in-toronto-remembers-the-50s/

To read Chapter 19, please go to https://beachmetro.com/2020/11/17/williamson-road-school-days-remembered-in-chapter-19-of-boom/


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