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Exhibition in Old Montreal museum looks at Black community's work on the railways

Photo: Pointe-a-Calliere/Montreal Museum of Archeology and History Photo: Pointe-a-Calliere/Montreal Museum of Archeology and History
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An event at the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History (Pointe-a-Calliere) Museum highlights the role of Black railway porters in a local neighbourhood.

The St. Henri community is one that some say has been long forgotten. The community is crisscrossed by train tracks, and its history is linked to the rails, being home to the oldest railway in Canada.

The working-class neighbourhood was immortalized by author Gabrielle Roy as a French-Canadian community, but there were also pockets of Black Montrealers living there.

"The other reality is that push against the myths or the romantic narrative of it being only Quebec francophone working class community," said historian Dorothy Williams.

The museum's exhibit dives into St. Henri's history and includes a section on railway porters. Williams found that many of them were Black men with university educations working as valets and living in St. Henri.

"We're not talking an uneducated class of people," she said. "We're talking about people who were pre-med, pre-law, the same person who would shine your shoes could also have a discussion with you about Aristotle and Socrates."

Working as a porter at the time was seen as a good job, but Williams said that even if Jim Crow laws weren't in place in Canada, abuse existed throughout the system.

"So you have you have stories of Black men being spit and hit, vomited on," she said.

For the museum, highlighting the porters' stories was a priority.

"Of course, if one community is predominant, you will mostly talk about them, but you don't want to forget the smaller stories that are important," said expositions director Samuel Moreau.

Williams will be giving a presentation at the museum on Feb. 22, which will look at the little-known community.

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