Originally published on Torontoist on October 20, 2012.
From an early age, Lincoln Alexander stood up for himself. Growing up in the east end of Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s, he endured a steady stream of insults directed at his skin colour. To survive he had to be a fighter, using both his brain and his fists as weapons.
The battles Alexander, who died yesterday at the age of 90, endured during his formative years shaped him into a man who set numerous milestones: first black MP (1968), first black federal cabinet minister (1979), and first black lieutenant-governor of Ontario (1985). Not to mention his roles as an advocate, chancellor of the University of Guelph, and one of the men who caught Pierre Trudeau dropping an f-bomb on Parliament Hill.
Born on January 21, 1922, Alexander was the son of West Indian immigrants whom he considered did well financially given the limited roles they could play in society. His father, Lincoln Sr., had little hope of pursuing a carpentry career and became a railway porter. His mother, Mae Rose, was a maid who risked German U-boat attacks during her journey from Jamaica to Canada during the First World War. The family lived at 29 Draper Street when Alexander was born, then moved several times before settling on Chatham Avenue near Jones and Danforth.
Earl Grey Public School on Jones Avenue, which Lincoln Alexander attended during the late 1920s and early 1930s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 263.
Often the only black student in his classes, Alexander was constantly taunted. The result was many childhood slugfests to defend himself. “I felt I had to make it clear that I would not accept being called any of those insulting names—nigger, coon, whatever,” he later noted. “If those issuing the insults couldn’t accept that, I had to resort to duking it out, and I can recall throwing the first punch.” The fights followed him to Riverdale Collegiate, where his opponents didn’t wise up. “The results of these altercations were always the same: I’d win because no one else could fight like me.” With kids he got along with, Alexander enjoyed activities like racing homemade go-karts around the neighborhood and bobsledding in Riverdale Park.
Amid these fights, Alexander’s mother urged him to work hard on his studies to improve his prospects and prove his worth to others. He later used one of her sayings, “go to school, you’re a little black boy,” as the title of his autobiography. His father encouraged the value of getting along with others, using the healthy tips he received for providing quality service on the trains as a model.
Sledding in Riverdale Park, December 27, 1935. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 52, Item 1797.
The Alexander family fell apart in the mid-1930s after his mother tired of his father’s infidelities. After briefly staying with his father, Alexander moved to Harlem to join his mother, where he gained an appreciation of the differences of how blacks were treated on the other side of the border. “There was no city in Canada to compare with Harlem before the Second World War,” he later reflected. “It was gruelling and grinding, it eroded your humanity, and it consumed your dignity. From that sense of personal emptiness, you begin to develop admiration for people who fight their way through that and have learned to hold their heads high.”
His mother urged him to return to Canada following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, so that he could enlist to fight against Hitler. He moved back in with his father, who did not want Alexander to admit their relationship in front of the older man’s female companions. Despite some tensions, Alexander defended his father after he was beaten up at a Spadina Avenue watering hole for porters. He threatened to come after anyone with a switchblade if they ever touched his father again.
Front page of Toronto Star announcing Lincoln Alexander’s appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, September 5, 1985.
Soon after returning to Canada, Alexander fell for Hamilton native Yvonne Harrison. He accepted a machine operator job at a munitions plant in Hamilton to “be in a better position to woo her.” It was a smart move—after a stint with the RCAF, Alexander studied at McMaster University, established a law career in Steeltown, built a political career, and enjoyed a marriage that lasted over half-a-century.
Additional material from “Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy” by Lincoln Alexander with Herb Shoveller (Toronto: Dundurn, 2010).