Exhibit on Portia White honours late concert singer's life and career

The family of the late Portia White is sharing stories and items from the singer's life with an exhibit in Toronto during Black History Month. Portia White was the first black Canadian concert singer to rise to international fame.

Relatives give public tribute to famous contralto during Black History Month

Portia White, seen here on a broadcast of CBC's Tabloid in 1958, was the first black Canadian concert singer to rise to international fame. (CBC)

It'll be 50 years this month since legendary Canadian concert singer Portia White died, and now her family is honouring her life and career with a special public exhibit in Toronto throughout Black History Month.

Portia White was the first black-Canadian concert singer to rise to international fame, despite facing barriers in a time of systemic racism.

Don Heights Unitarian Congregation, on Wynford Drive near Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue East, is hosting the exhibit. It's called Celebrating Portia White...50 years on, and features a collection of photographs and portraits, vintage recordings, and treasured personal items.

CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond speaks with Sheila White, niece of legendary Canadian singer Portia White, about an exhibit being held in her honour for Black History Month. 4:08

"I wanted to make sure all the artifacts we had as a family could come to light as we celebrate the achievements of this great woman," said Sheila White, Portia White's niece and chair of the exhibit.

Special displays include Portia White's hardcover copy of The Book of American Negro Spirituals, which was given to her by renowned Canadian architect Andrew Cobb, and a rare piece of classical sheet music written and given to her by American composer and "Father of the Blues," W. C. Handy.

Sheila White, the niece of the late Portia White, organized the exhibit. (Sannah Choi/CBC)

Sheila White, who remembers her famous aunt as "a warm and wonderful person," recently inherited keepsakes from her life and decided to share them.

"We're rolling out a full tribute to a woman who achieved fame before YouTube, The Voice, and practically before TV and was able to reach audiences around the world."

Started her career in Toronto

Born in Nova Scotia in 1911, Portia White sang and performed as a child in her church choir and at local concerts. Her big break came at age 30 when she performed at Toronto's Eaton Auditorium on Nov. 7, 1941.

Photo of Portia White meeting Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Charlottetown's Confederation Centre of the Arts on Oct. 6, 1964. (White Family)

Throughout her career, she toured extensively across the Americas and Caribbean, met and performed for dignitaries and royalty, and after retiring from the concert spotlight, she taught vocal lessons to students like actors Lorne Green and Dinah Christie in Toronto.

She lived downtown until her death at age 56 on Feb. 13, 1968 after a battle with cancer.

'Never once complained about racism'

Among the stories highlighted at the exhibit is an account from the daughter of a couple who drove White to New York for her first Town Hall concert. She describes the shock and horror her parents witnessed as White couldn't eat in restaurants and stay in hotels, simply because she was black.

However, circumstances like these never seemed to bother White, according to her niece.

Portia White treasured her hardcover copy of 'The Book of American Negro Spirituals,' which was given to her by Canadian architect Andrew Cobb. (James Morrison-Collalto/CBC)

"She just was used to it, or didn't acknowledge it, or didn't recognize it. She always carried herself with great dignity and never once complained about racism," Sheila White said.

Hopes for a travelling exhibit

This is the first tribute of its kind to Portia White, but her family is hoping to get a grant so the exhibit can travel across the country. They think it would be especially meaningful to bring it her birthplace, Truro, N.S.

Sheet music written by the 'Father of the Blues' W.C. Handy. He and Portia White met at the American Negro Music Festival in 1944 and he gave her this rare piece of music. (James Morrison-Collalto/CBC)

Sheila White says her aunt needs to be remembered by all the young black artists who will struggle with difficulties and barriers as they pursue their dreams.

"To know that there was a very strong black woman in the 1940s who pushed through all those challenges … If she could do it, they can too."   

The exhibit will run throughout Black History Month at the Don Heights Unitarian Congregation. (Sannah Choi/CBC)