Why Portia White matters 70 years later

Almost 70 years later, Portia White’s story can still teach us the importance of generosity in building better communities, says filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton.

By Ariel Gough

Filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton says there's a lot to learn from Portia White. (Ariel Gough/Peninsula News)
Filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton says there’s a lot to learn from Portia White. (Ariel Gough/Peninsula News)

Almost 70 years later, Portia White’s story can still teach us the importance of generosity in building better communities, says Nova Scotian filmmaker Sylvia Hamilton.

The Dalhousie Art Gallery screened Hamilton’s documentary, “Portia White: Think On Me”, on February 18 in celebration of African Heritage Month. The documentary, which first aired on Canadian television networks in 2000, chronicles the personal life and career of the acclaimed African Canadian vocalist.

It is Portia White’s generosity that Hamilton said still resonates today.

“In “Portia White: Think on Me”, you saw Portia’s siblings talk about how connected she was to family and taking care of them.The generosity and bringing people together was very important to her,” she said.

Hamilton said that there is sometimes a disconnect in our society and like Portia, she believes generosity could bring communities closer together.

“We are not always generous with each other and we don’t recognize that we are all interconnected,” she said. “In the black community and in the broader community, if we all live in this world together then we have to be generous with each other.”

Born in Halifax, Portia White, became the first black Canadian concert singer to win international recognition. She was a teacher in communities across the province, including the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.

Despite the difficulty of getting bookings because of her race, the operatic contralto singer went on to perform for notable public figures, including Queen Elizabeth in 1964. Once called “the singer who broke the colour barrier in Canadian classical music” by the Chronicle Herald, she toured the United States and Canada to perform in front of large audiences.

White later returned to Toronto to teach vocal lessons. She died after a battle with cancer in 1968.

In order to be generous and connect with each other as White did, Hamilton feels it is all about starting the conversation.

“We need to have open dialogue about this,” she said. “We need to engage in an honest way with each other and think about how we can build communities together.”

Jane Henson, a Halifax resident who attended the screening, said she believes the late vocalist would want us to continue to spread her message.

“I think Portia would want us to come together. Yes, that starts with being generous. It’s simple, isn’t it?” she said. “This film is extremely important to all of us as Nova Scotians and I feel extremely grateful that Sylvia collected this information.”

In a question and answer session after the screening, Hamilton said she hopes to put together a biography on White using research she collected for the film in order to make the information more widely available.

The art gallery also screened Hamilton’s documentary “Black Mother, Black Daughter” during the event. The film explores the contribution of African Nova Scotian women to the home, the church and to the community.

To find out more information about African Heritage Month events across the province, visit ansa.novascotia.ca