Our History & Heritage – African Nova Scotian Leaders
February is African Heritage Month. Each week this month we are celebrating the life and contributions of an impactful African Nova Scotian. This week we are focusing on Portia White.
From Truro, N.S., Portia White (1911-1968) was a classical vocalist who worked to push the limitations placed on her because of her race. Portia broke through the barrier of colour when she became the first African Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim.
Portia began her singing career at the age of six when her mother conducted their church choir. At eight years old, she decided she was going to become a professional singer and began walking 10 miles a week to take structured singing lessons.
The strength of her voice won her several awards at music festivals throughout the 1930’s. From this she received a scholarship to study at the Halifax Conservatory of Music. After multiple local voice recitals, Portia decided to make her formal debut in Toronto. Even though her vocal talents were reviewed with highest praise, she still struggled to obtain bookings due to her race.
Although she was often turned away from performances because of racism, Portia did not give up on her dream of being a professional singer. She continued to fight for her rights as a vocalist and eventually performed at a recital in 1944 at New York’s Town Hall. After this recital, she signed with the largest artist agency in North America and continued to inspire thousands of young performers.
Portia gained most of her recognition in the years after she passed away. In 1995, her courage and perseverance were acknowledged when she was named a “person of national historic significance” by the Government of Canada. Since 1998, the Nova Scotia Arts Council has awarded the Portia White Prize to an outstanding Nova Scotian in the arts. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust presents a scholarship in her name to exceptional vocalists; they also named their annual gala concert in her honour. She was also posthumously awarded the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007.
Source: Canadian Encyclopedia