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Nova Scotia singer Portia White

July 9, 1998

Portia White began her working life as a teacher and ended it as a teacher. In between, her rich contralto voice, her way with music and her gracious stage presence made her a hit on concert stages in Canada, the United States and Central America.

Portia White was born in 1911 in Truro, Nova Scotia, the third of 13 children. Her mother, Izie Dora White, was a Nova Scotia native. Her father, William Andrew White, immigrated to Canada from Baltimore, Maryland, in 1900 and attended Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, graduating as an ordained minister in 1906. After his service in World War One finished, the family moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, when Portia’s father became the pastor of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. By the age of 6, in 1917, Portia was singing in the church choir which was directed by her mother. It is said that sometimes the choir at Cornwallis Street was made up of only White children!

Portia was black, a member of a well-known family as her father became recognized as the spiritual leader of the local black community in Halifax. After taking a teacher training course at Dalhousie University, Portia taught in Lucasville, a rural black settlement in Halifax County. These were the Depression years and she earned $30 a month. Once a week, she walked ten miles into Halifax for voice lessons. Some time in 1937-1938, the Halifax Ladies Music Club arranged for Portia to attend the Halifax Conservatory of Music.

After only three full recitals in the Maritime Provinces, Portia sang at the Eaton Auditorium in Toronto, Ontario, in late 1941. In the spring of 1944, at the age of 31, she had her Town Hall debut in New York City. These were arranged with the support of Dr. Edith Read, a Halifax native who heard Portia on a visit to the Maritimes. She performed in concerts until 1952 when she settled in Toronto and turned to earning her living by teaching while she continued her own musical studies. Portia taught at Branksome Hall, a private girls’ school in Toronto which had Edith Read as its principal. Portia also taught a generation of Canadian pop singers. Portia said that the “crowning achievement” of her career was a Command Performance before Queen Elizabeth II in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in October, 1964. Portia died in 1968 at the relatively young age of 57.

Portia White never had a recording contract. Through the efforts of Dr. Jay White, a digital copy of transcriptions from three of her live performances are now in the National Library in Ottawa. In 1994, ANALEKTA released Volume 5 of its Great Voices of Canada Series in CD format which includes two songs sung by Portia White. See Resources below to find a hot link to Dr. White's website on Portia White, and more.

Canada Post issued a year 2000 46-cent stamp featuring Portia White, a great tribute to a cool woman.

Two questions her story raises (you probably have more):

  • What kind of inner resources it took for Portia to succeed even with her extraordinary talent?
  • Why does society respond to artists of colour at the same time as discriminating against others of colour?
more to consider

We hear a lot about what it takes to make it, be a success, in any part of the music world today. Portia did it from a small community, between two world wars and the Depression, at a time when women, and even more so, women of colour, had a struggle to get an education and fight to get a job in anything other than domestic service.

Even if she came from a known and respected family, that made a difference only in Canada. It did not make all the difference, for Portia White met discrimination even if she chose not to speak out about it. For instance, halls in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario declined to host her concerts. She toured long distances, alone but for an accompanist, paying for her own expenses out of modest salary.

She accomplished much, and it must have taken drive and energy and a sense of adventure.

Resources for this story

James R. Johnston Chair in Black Studies, Dalhouse University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

CoolWomen’s K. Linda Kivi wrote a book entitled Canadian Women Making Music (1992, Green Dragon Press).

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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