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 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Black Heritage
Part 2: Slavery & the First Wave
  Related Resources
• Hfx. Arts & Entertainment
• Acadian Music
Famous NS Women
Musical NS Women
 Elsewhere on the Web

• "Think on Me" - S.Hamilton
• Humanitarian Conductor Wins Portia White Prize

Portia White (1911 - 1968)

Portia White Stamp - Courtesy Canada PostA Nova Scotian singer who never publicly recorded a note is internationally reknowned for her magnificent voice. That in itself is a phenomenon.

More remarkable yet is the story of Portia White, a black, female singer who rose to fame in the 1940's and all but disappeared from history until recently. The operative words here are "black" and "female", yokes under which Portia White laboured and which Nova Scotian writer/filmaker Sylvia Hamilton describes as 'the double whammy of being born black and female'. That being the case, being born black and female in the year 1911 must have been a 'triple by-pass' for most, but not for Portia White.

Portia White is described as one of the greatest vocalists in Canadian history and has been repeatedly compared to Philadelphia's Marian Anderson (1897 - 1993), also a classical contralto, also black and female. Except for the long life and thus the lengthy career of Anderson, her story and that of Portia White's are remarkably similar.

Portia White's determination to be successful and the story of her 10 mile walk each week for music lessons is well documented, but the details surrounding what followed are not so well known.

Following a dream is one thing, but how this feisty woman broke all the barriers of race, gender and the exclusivity of classical music is another. Her first concert was held in Toronto in 1941 and by 1944, she was touring internationally.

That same year, the Nova Scotia Talent Trust was established to support Portia's career, an organization which still exists and has rewarded exceptional Nova Scotian artistic talents to the tune of almost a million dollars. In the 50's, Portia was to give a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II.

More recently, in 1998, the Nova Scotia Arts Council established the Portia White Prize and Canada Post issued a postage stamp in her honour.

Fifty years earlier however, it was a different world. By 1948, puzzling circumstances had all but stilled the amazing voice of Portia White. In the short decades to follow, Portia lived in Toronto teaching music to talents like Robert Goulet, until her untimely death from cancer in 1968. She was 57 years old.

How this all came about is an incredible story that tells of an exceptional individual, and a loss to classical music. With the help of Portia's youngest brother and sister-in-law Vivian White , Western Washington University Professor Jay White (no relation) has compiled a 'history' of Portia White.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Chris White (son of Lorne) and his sister worked hard to insure that the few family recordings of Portia's concerts were available to the National Archives of Canada. The quality is better than expected and a Portia White CD entitled "First, You Dream..." is now available. Don't miss out. It's the only recording of Nova Scotia's famous 'black female classical singer' you'll ever hear. Here's a snippet, from CBC Radio Arts.

Back to Black History: Part 1, 2, 3

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Highway7 E-zine, a publication of Hatch Media, is an electronic journal with a focus on commercial, historical, cultural and ecological issues concerning the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia in Canada. Topics include a growing resource of currently more than 300 articles. More articles and image galleries are added frequently as new material is brought to our attention. With Highway7.com, our primary aim is to serve, inform and reflect the rural communities on the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia, as well as to acquaint new residents, visitors, tourists, and investors with the special beauty and enormous potential of our region.
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