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Portia White was the first Afro-Canadian singer trained only in Canada to reach an international stage. As an African-Canadian, her popularity helped to open previously closed doors for talented blacks who followed.
Portia May White was born in Truro, Nova Scotia, the third child of Izie Dora and William Andrew White. Her father, a Baptist minister, graduated from Acadia University in Nova Scotia in 1903. When he became the minister at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, young Portia joined the choir at age six, thus beginning her musical career. When she was eight years old, Portia White had learned the soprano parts from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, and was given the opportunity to sing on Canadian radio broadcasts.
Portia White attended Dalhousie University in 1929, and in the early 1930s found a teaching job in Africiville, a community just outside of Halifax, founded by former slaves from the United States after the War of 1812. She continued her musical training at the Halifax Conservatory with the support of the Halifax Ladies Musical Club.
In 1941 Portia White met Edith Read, a fellow Nova Scotian, and principal of a private girl’s school in Toronto. Recognizing White’s talent, Read made arrangements for her to perform at Eaton Auditorium in Toronto on November 7, 1941, the first of several performances on the Toronto concert stage over the next few years. In 1944 White auditioned with Edward Johnson, the Canadian-born general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Through Johnson White made her United States debut at New York’s Town Hall before a packed audience, becoming the first Canadian to sing there. Her repertoire included both European classics and Negro spirituals with which most critics and audiences felt she really excelled.
Portia White’s international career was unfortunately quite brief. Between 1945 and 1948 she toured extensively in Canada, United States, and Latin America. She found these tours to be gruelling partly because her body and voice had little rest between concerts. By 1952 she gave up the concert stage and returned to Toronto to teach music. There White became the voice and music instructor of such well known performers as Lorne Greene, Dinah Christie, Don Francks, and Robert Goulet. On October 6, 1964 White gave a command performance before Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Portia White died in Toronto in February 1968 after a long battle with cancer. Since then many honours have been bestowed on her. Canada Post has issued a Portia White stamp. In 1997 the Nova Scotia government created a special award for artists in her memory. A plaque in Truro declared Portia White to be a person of historic significance, the first Canadian woman of African descent to receive this designation, a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman who figured so prominently in the musical life of her community and the world.
Lian Goodall, Singing Towards the Future: The Story of Portia White (Toronto: Napoleon Publishing, 2004).