Vernon’s The Black Prairie Archives: A Discussion
The two-story brick building at 795 Main Street in Winnipeg is for sale again, priced at $300,000 for a store front and a living quarter. This building has been many things since it was built in early 1894: a furniture store, a drug store, a grocery store on more than one occasion, and a Chinese restaurant. Built nearby the city’s railway stations, 795 Main Street was a convenient location for the communities that made their livings working there. This included the seventy-six Black men who worked as sleeping car porters for the Canadian Northern Railway in 1909. In 1917, the Order of the Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP) began to represent the specific interests of Black railway porters. It was in the interwar period that 795 Main Street became the office, meeting halls, and social hub of the OSCP. Throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, 795 Main Street would remain the hub of Winnipeg’s Black community.
Like so many institutions representing Indigenous, racialized, or immigrant communities in western Canada, the OSCP’s Winnipeg headquarters was many things to many people. It was known as “Unity Hall” or the “Porter’s Club,” and served as what historian Sarah-Jane Mathieu calls the “nerve center, the black community's very epicenter” in early and mid-20th century Winnipeg. It had a lunch counter, a pool hall, a beer parlour, and a meeting room where fraternal clubs met and the Railway Porters’ band of Winnipeg rehearsed. On weekends, 795 Main Street functioned as a jazz club. It sometimes attracted the attention of the city’s police. In August 1920, thirteen Black men were fined for gambling, and one man for keeping a gaming house at the building. Records held at the Archives of Manitoba make clear the connections the Winnipeg Porters maintained with Black communities across western Canada, and document the important work of women to maintaining this community space in the middle years of the 20th century.
For all of this, there is nothing at 795 Main Street to alert a passerby to this building’s significance to Black prairie history. There is no plaque. The building is not among the thousands of buildings listed in the City of Winnipeg’s List of Historical Resources. This erasure of Black prairie history is called into question by Karina Vernon’s magisterial The Black Prairie Archives. This is the first of two companion volumes to be published by Wilfrid Laurier University, drawing together a wide range of Black prairie writing produced between 1872 and 2019. Published in 2020, Vernon’s book makes Black prairie history and life visible and accessible, and has implications for how scholars of the prairies think, write, and work.
In this forum, four authors with a range of different expertise and perspectives respond to Vernon’s The Black Prairie Archives. Historian Barrington Walker situates Vernon’s book in the context of Black Canadian history. Writer Erica Violet Lee examines it as invocation to imagine Black and Indigenous prairie futures. Sonja Boon, as a scholar of feminist theory and life writing, reads Vernon’s book through these perspectives and in light of her own history in the Black prairies. Betel Belachew reflects on what the stories contained in Vernon’s book mean for today’s Black Winnipeg.
Some of the long-standing silence about Black prairie pasts was punctured in 2020 and 2021. In June of 2020 some 15,000 people gathered in Winnipeg in the name of Justice4BlackLives. Early in 2022, viewers should be able to watch a television series inspired by Winnipeg’s sleep-ing car porters, and it will be the biggest Black-led television production ever made in Canada. We still know too little about Black prairie pasts, and Vernon’s book, and these thoughtful responses to it, give us crucial ways to start better considering Black prairie histories.
Dr. Adele Perry is director of the Centre for Human Rights Research and distinguished professor of history and women’s and gender studies. She is a historian of colonialism, gender, race and western Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. From 2003 to 2014, Perry held a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair and she is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and past president of the Canadian Historical Association.