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October 6, 2022

Family, Mobility, and Anti-Black Racism in 20th-Century Montreal (Families, Mobility, and Work)

A historical account of the work mobility and family lives of Black railway porters in 20th-century Montreal.

October 6, 2022

In “Climbing the ‘Ladder of Success’: Family, Labour Mobility, and Anti-Black Racism in Twentieth-Century Montreal,” author Steven High provides a historical account of the work mobility and family lives of Black railway porters in 20th-century Montreal based on oral history interviews.

This chapter is one of many rich contributions included in Families, Mobility, and Work – a compilation of articles and other knowledge products based on research from the On the Move Partnership. Published in September 2022 by Memorial University Press, this book is now available in print, as an eBook, and as a free open-access volume available in full on Memorial University website.

“… employment-related geographical mobility is not a new phenomenon for many Canadians, but especially Black Montrealers, for whom it was foundational to their family and community life.” – Steven High, PhD

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Chapter abstract

British sociologist Satnam Virdee has encouraged us to recognize the intimate relationship between capitalism and class struggles and racial inequality. Historic anti-Black racism in Montreal ensured that few Black men found employment in the city’s many factories and shops. As a result, most found jobs working on the railway as porters, cooks, and dining car employees – job categories that were restricted to Black workers. Labour mobility was thus foundational to community and family life. Once unionized, it also provided Black families with a pathway into the blue-collar middle class. As the Montreal Women’s Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters reported in 1956, “the foundation laid by your leaders to enable you to climb the ladder of success was made by the male railroad porters and their family” (“Montreal” 1956). However, railway employment declined precipitously during the 1960s and 1970s, which proved disastrous for many families.

About the author

Steven High, PhD, is Professor of History at Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling and a co-researcher in the On the Move project. He has a book forthcoming on the history of Montreal’s Little Burgundy and Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhoods.

Also from Steven High:
Employment Mobility and Family Gentrification in Montreal

Photo: Royal train porters on the CNR, 1951. Photo courtesy of Memorial University Press.