Vintage Toronto Ads: Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen

Originally published on Torontoist on February 6, 2015.

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Toronto Star, February 27, 1963.

According to her corporate website, Aunt Jemima stands for “warmth, nourishment and trust—qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families.” Yet no amount of facelifts, bandana removal, or cultural diversity pitches can erase past depictions of its pancake-making pitchwoman as the ultimate stereotypical southern mammy.

Aunt Jemima’s image has long been problematic. Created in 1889 to promote an early pre-mixed baking mix, the brand was reputedly inspired by a minstrel show where a white performer sang as “Old Aunt Jemima” in blackface and drag. In 1893 Nancy Green, a former slave, was hired to portray her for cooking demonstrations at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Marketers developed a back story steeped in the mythology of the old South, including a benevolent plantation owner named Colonel Higbee and the large black woman working in the kitchen to please her white employers and aid the Confederacy.

Green’s successful appearance in Chicago led to tours where she or other women donned what was effectively slave garb. Toronto was among the stops. For a week of cooking demonstrations at Simpson’s department store in March 1902, ad writers felt the best way to illustrate Aunt Jemima’s place in society was to translate her pitches into pidgin English:

Aunt Jemima has fried pancakes all over the United States. Her record is 9,000 cakes a day. She is “demonstrating” the high and mighty art of turning pancakes in our grocery department this week, and, judging by the crowds, her ideas is regard to pancakes are of great and exceeding value.

“No buttah. No la’ad. Jus’ a bit o’ salt powk tied up in a piece o’ clean cheesecloth bought fo’ dat puhpus.” That is one of Aunt Jemima’s principles, which at first blush might seem a trifle revolutionary.

“One pint watah, one pint milk, one teacup o’ de flour makes cakes for six puhsons.”

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Don Mills Mirror, May 6, 1964.

In 1955, Aunt Jemima owner Quaker Oats opened a southern-themed family restaurant at Disneyland. By 1962, after serving over 1.6 million customers at the theme park, Quaker expanded the concept into a North American pancake house chain. Metro Torontonians downed their first Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen flapjack on February 27, 1963, when a location opened at Lawrence Avenue East and Bellamy Road in Scarborough. Opening day ads reinforced the mythology of the genteel, relaxed southern plantation the restaurant hoped to evoke, and promised a personal appearance from Aunt Jemima herself.

Quaker’s choice of Scarborough to debut the concept complemented other food franchisers who saw the suburb as an ideal testing ground. “The area has a very high ratio of cars to population, a good standard of living, and is having growing pains,” observed Harold Schner, a franchiser for Mister Donut and Red Barn. “Since there are few good restaurants in Scarborough, a community with young families dependent on automobiles for transportation to a great extent, it is a good area.”

In her Globe and Mail advertorial dining column, Mary Walpole played along with the cringe-inducing stereotypes. “The décor is beautifully done, warm and friendly as a southern plantation,” Walpole gushed, “and not without reason for the Aunt Jemima name is a carefully guarded thing and all must be perfect before they hang out the sign of her smiling dark face.” Walpole also played upon old fashioned notions of patriarchy, noting that when ordering the Family Platter, it was the father’s duty to serve the scrambled eggs and meat.

While Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen added a second location at Bayview Village in 1964, both brand and chain faced increasing criticism as the civil rights movement aimed at what the smiling cook represented. Black consumers had rarely been consulted for their thoughts about Aunt Jemima; when they were, the feedback was negative. The NAACP called for a boycott. Delegates at an August 1966 American Federation of Teachers convention in Chicago adopted a resolution condemning a nearby Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen for demeaning employees by making a black woman wear an Aunt Jemima costume. A boycott was launched until management allowed the employee to wear contemporary hostess clothing. Quaker Oats promised costumed Aunt Jemimas would be phased out from their five Chicago locations, a pledge fulfilled across the chain when the last one was pulled off the road in 1967.

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Globe Magazine, March 25, 1967.

The chain soon declined. Its flagship Disneyland location closed in 1970. Toronto was abandoned two years earlier—toward the end, the Bayview Village location decreased its selection of fancy pancakes from 37 to 23.

While efforts were made to modernize the brand—most significantly the removal of her headwear in 1989—the baggage remains. In his book Slave in a Box, M.M. Manring draws the following conclusion as to why Aunt Jemima endures:

Aunt Jemima lives on because white Americans like having a mammy. Quaker Oats can move her off her plantation, take off her bandanna, and tint her hair; it makes little difference. If times change, they might even be bold enough to put the bandanna back on her head. Aunt Jemima and mammy are tools used to interpret our legacy of racism, sexism, and slavery, either approvingly or disapprovingly. Keeping her around, spinning superficial explanations for her continued presence on that box, doesn’t help us overcome that legacy.

Sources: Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima by M.M. Manring (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998); the April 20, 1963, May 18, 1963, and May 31, 1963 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 26, 1966 edition of the New York Times; and the March 25, 1902 edition of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

In June 2020, Quaker Oats announced that the Aunt Jemima branding would be dropped.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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The Globe, March 28, 1902.

Another ad from Nancy Green’s stint at Simpson’s in 1902.

brantford expositor circa 1906 pancake booth

It’s probably a relief that the low quality of this scan of a pamphlet for a 1906 fundraising fair for Brantford’s John H. Stratford Hospital blots out the chef’s features (likely the “real pickaninny”), especially if he was wearing stereotypical blackface makeup of the era. The facility was renamed Brantford General Hospital in 1910.

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Canadian Grocer, Septemeber 17, 1909.

A series of Aunt Jemima rag doll premiums available to grocers perpetuated racist stereotypes and passed them on to children. The local Toronto agent for the mix was MacLaren Imperial Cheese, whose name lives on in a cold pack cheese spread that’s still available on Canadian grocery shelves as of 2020.

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Canadian Grocer, October 10, 1913.

I’m afraid to know what the “dandy advertising campaign” involved.

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Canadian Grocer, November 20, 1914.

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Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1923.

Nancy Green’s obituary. Even in death, her words were translated into pidgin. At least there’s no backstory of glorious plantations here, though one wonders how similar wealthy Chicago families were.

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Dawn of Tomorrow, September 15, 1923.

A more dignified obit for Green was presented in the Black press – this clipping is from the London, Ontario based Dawn of Tomorrow.

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The Globe, October 23, 1923.

How Aunt Jemima was advertised by the 1920s. Usually the mammy image was included…

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The Globe, December 26, 1923.

…sometimes not (though the pidgin-English slogan remained).

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Globe and Mail, April 20, 1963.

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Globe and Mail, May 18, 1963.

A pair of Mary Walpole’s advertorials about Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen. I’m imagining a steady soundtrack of Stephen Foster songs.

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Globe and Mail, May 31, 1963.

An article on how Scarborough was seen as an ideal place to test franchising concepts during the 1960s.

Icy Discrimination

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on March 6, 2010.

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General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mayor Robert H. Saunders at Cenotaph at Old City Hall, January 12, 1946. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2903.

One day in early November 1945, fifteen-year-old Harry Gairey Jr. went with five friends to the private Icelandia skating rink on Yonge Street in North Toronto, despite his father’s warning that the venue was not known to treat black customers kindly. Gairey Jr. went ahead and hoped the afternoon would provide a good opportunity to help a friend improve his skating skills. While his white companions were allowed into Icelandia, Gairey Jr. was notified by rink manager Bedford Allen that “no coloured boys can come in here.”

Harry’s friends saw what happened, turned around, and asked for a refund. Incensed by the treatment shown to his son, Harry Gairey Sr. contacted his local alderman and arranged for an audience with the city’s Board of Control on November 14. With tears in his eyes, Gairey Sr. offered apologies for taking the council’s time, to which Mayor Robert Saunders replied, “I don’t know that we have anything more valuable on which to spend our time than looking into a matter like this.” Gairey Sr. related the incident, which he found disgraceful, then offered additional thoughts that he later recalled in A Black Man’s Toronto 1914-1980: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey:

Now it would be all right if the powers that be refused my son admission to the Icelandia, I would accept it, if when the next war comes, you’re going to say “Harry Gairey, you’re black, you stay here, don’t go to war.” But your Worship, and Gentlemen of the Council, it’s not going to be that way, you’re going to say he’s a Canadian and you’ll conscript him. And if so, I would like my son to have everything a Canadian citizen is entitled to, providing he’s worthy of it.

The Telegram also noted part of his address:

We have heard so much about democracy, and we have just gone through a war for it, but this is an example of everything not democratic. If we are to have democracy it must start in our city, in the homes, on the streets. If we are to be divided into racial and colour groups, each to receive different treatment, there is little to live for.

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The picket line outside Icelandia. The Telegram, November 23, 1945.

A week later, a group of University of Toronto students with ties to the campus Labor-Progressive Club organized two days of protest outside Icelandia. The owner refused to comment, but an assistant claimed there weren’t any race restrictions. After over 150 picketers bearing placards with slogans like “no discrimination” showed up on the second day, police were called in to break it up. Southern Ontario B’nai B’rith director Al Zimmerman visited the operators of Icelandia and saw little sign of compromise, which resulted in a boycott. “We asked if the discrimination would continue,” he told the Star in 1947, “and were told that the rink would continue to bar Negroes but not Jews. But the barring of Negroes was sufficient to satisfy us that intolerance would be continued and we decided among ourselves not to patronize the rink.”

Business suffered briefly at Icelandia after the Gairey incident but the furor soon blew over. It didn’t take long for management to prove it wasn’t just blacks with whom they took issue. In early January 1947, a Jewish girl was denied entry, which revived accounts of Gairey Jr’s treatment in local papers. In his January 10 column in the Globe and Mail, Jim Coleman noted the crushing effects that being separated from their peers had on both youths and cynically wrote:

The proprietors of Icelandia are at least consistent in their attitude, and we presume that, when the occasion arises, they will bar Communists, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists—in fact, all those who don’t noisily swear allegiance to the most orthodox branches of the Christian faith… If you go to Icelandia, be sure to take a letter from your pastor—the gateman may look suspiciously at the curve of your nose.

Coleman soon received many letters, among which he found “a heartening percentage of readers abhor racial discrimination.” A fresh boycott against Icelandia was launched by the United Electrical Workers Union and picketers returned. Various labour and educational groups called on city council to enact tougher anti-discrimination laws. Community papers like the North Toronto Heraldurged clergymen to denounce Icelandia during Sunday sermons. By mid-January, a legislation committee that included future mayor Nathan Phillips drafted an amendment to the licensing bylaws that required passage by the Toronto Police Commission.

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James “Jim” A. Coleman, columnist for the Globe and Mail, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2473.

If you thought Icelandia might have cooled it in the face of public anger, the rink’s management quickly revealed their true colours yet again. In his February 1 column, Coleman noted a fresh incident of discrimination against a Greek skater. A scuffle ensued and Coleman’s tone indicated that he was happy to hear that the rink staffer wound up splayed on the ground. The rink used its ad in the Globe and Mail two days later to threaten Coleman with legal action…which happened to be the same day city council approved its anti-discrimination resolution.

On February 22, newspaper front pages announced that the police commission approved the new bylaw. The Globe and Mail printed the new rules in full:

(1) Every license issued to the owner or keeper of an exhibition, theatre, music hall, moving-picture show, public hall or any place of amusement shall be subject to the condition that no discrimination on account of race, creed or colour shall be shown against any member of the public who seeks admission to the premises in respect to which the license is issued and every such license shall bear a written or printed endorsement to the forgiving effect.
(2) No person licensed as the owner or keeper of an exhibition, theatre, music hall, moving-picture show, public hall or place of amusement shall discriminate against any member of the public who seeks admission to the premises in respect to which the license is issued because of the race, creed or colour of such member.

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Article on Harry Gairey Jr. The Maple Leaf, December 1, 1945.

In the long run, the skating deities were kinder to the Gairey family than Icelandia. Besides battles over its discriminatory practices, the rink got into trouble with the city over its attempts to facilitate hockey games on Sundays. Frustration and prodding from the press spurred efforts to build a public skating rink in North Toronto. Icelandia barely survived into the 1950s—its site at 1941 Yonge Street is now occupied by a liquor store. Harry Gairey Sr., who was proud that his speech had made officials begin to think about changing laws, received many honours for his activism and community involvement. Within three years of his passing in 1993, the outdoor skating rink at Alexandra Park was named in his honour.

Sources: A Black Man’s Toronto 1914-1980: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey, edited by Donna Hill (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981) and the following newspapers: the January 10, 1947, January 11, 1947, January 14, 1947, January 18, 1947, February 1, 1947, February 3, 1947,and February 22, 1947 editions of the Globe and Mail; the January 17, 1947 edition of the North Toronto Herald; the November 14, 1945, November 23, 1945, January 11, 1947, March 19, 1947, and September 27, 1947, editions of the Toronto Star; and the November 14, 1945, and November 23, 1945, editions of the Telegram.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

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Globe and Mail, November 23, 1945.

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Toronto Star, November 23, 1945.

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Globe and Mail, November 24, 1945.

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The Varsity, November 26, 1945.

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The Varsity, November 27, 1945.

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Globe and Mail, November 29, 1945.

I wonder if the “strict discipline” referred to in this Icelandia ad refers to the guidance offered by its pro skaters, or to prevent any more protests.

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Globe and Mail, January 10, 1947.

The column that exposed Icelandia’s continuing discriminatory issues…

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Globe and Mail, January 11, 1947.

…and Icelandia’s response. At this time, the rink ran short “Ice News Bulletins” in Toronto newspapers that usually pitched the latest events, reprinted congratulatory letters from its clients, or offered lousy verse about enjoyed its facilities.

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Globe and Mail, January 11, 1947.

The G&M‘s editorial page was not amused, referring to the latest incident and what had happened to Gairey.

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Globe and Mail, January 14, 1947.

Other journalists sent Coleman their thoughts about Icelandia.

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The Varsity, January 14, 1947.

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The Varsity, January 15, 1947.

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Excerpt from Jim Coleman’s column, Globe and Mail, January 17, 1947.

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Globe and Mail, January 18, 1947.

This ad tries to attract a lawn bowler (or is “Henry” a reference to another poet or an enemy of the rink?). The poet is dishonest when they claim “we do not seek to harm or maim.”

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Toronto Star, January 20, 1947.

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Globe and Mail, February 1, 1947.

The nationality in question was Greek, a community which had long faced discrimination in the city, most infamously during the Anti-Greek Riot in 1918.

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Globe and Mail, February 3, 1947.

A month later, Icelandia served Coleman and G&M general manager Harry Kimber with a libel notice. I have not found any subsequent coverage, leading me to believe it was unsuccessful.

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Globe and Mail, February 3, 1947.

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The Varsity, February 4, 1947.

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The Varsity, February 13, 1947.

For more on the 1944 Anti-Discrimination Act, check out my TVO piece on its 75th anniversary.

Searching for more stories of people affected by Icelandia’s icy attitude towards others, I came across this account from actor Al Waxman. In his autobiography That’s What I Am, Waxman described a youthful incident where his hockey teammates unanimously elected him captain. The coach quickly vetoed the team’s decision, as Waxman was the only Jew.

I waited until everyone left, then, sitting alone in that locker room at Icelandia, where Jews were not welcome, I cried. I had been hit by flying pucks, slapped in the face by swinging sticks, smothered in scrambles around the net, but had never cried before.

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Globe and Mail, March 13, 1947.

Some sour grapes after a parade honouring champion skater Barbara Ann Scott failed to go past Icelandia. The rink’s ads frequently boasted that Scott had skated there. Management may have also been angry at Mayor Robert Saunders over attempts to prevent the rink from operating fully on Sundays, a battle which took up plenty of court time throughout the rest of 1947.

The city considered buying Icelandia in 1950 but decided the asking price of $115,000 was too high, especially for a building that required an addition to bring the ice up to standard. With no fanfare, it appears the rink closed its doors the following year. As of June 2020, its site is a surface parking, likely awaiting future redevelopment.

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Harry Gairey Jr. and Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall. Photo by Boris Spremo, originally published in the January 25, 1996 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Public Library, Toronto Star Photo Archive, tspa_0048893f.

star 1996-01-25 gairey rinkToronto Star, January 25, 1996.

When he died in 2015, Gairey Jr. was remembered for his half-century as a basketball referee in the city. “He had a far-reaching impact on everybody,” fellow ref Al Northcott told the Star. “He never answered a harsh word with a harsh word himself.”

Linc at Home in Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on October 20, 2012.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).