The Long Walk Home

The Black Worker & The Great Migration from Cape Breton

At the turn of the century, a mass migration occurred to Cape Breton Island of hundreds of free, skilled Black workers from Alabama, lured by what they called 'The Promise.' Their emigration back to the US is scarcely known today. In 1911, hundreds of men from the West Indies were again lured by 'The Promise'. Their descendents form the heart of the historic Whitney Pier community. Our correspondent, Paul MacDougall, files reports from Bangor, Maine, and Sydney.

Shunpiking Magazine No. 38

Bangor, January 13/1903-About 250 Black people showed up here today at the police station looking for shelter from the fierce winter cold. They were a penniless, destitute bunch, clad mainly in rags, complaining about being hungry, and shivering from the cold. Their spokesmen seemed to be a person by the name of Griggins or Griffin, I couldn't make him out, Walter was his first name so let's stick with that. His wife was with him and she seemed awfully upset at their predicament. Walter said they needed a place for the night and planned to head on up to Bucksport the next day or so by train, then catch the steamer Penobscot to take them to Boston. From there the group planned to head down to the southern states, many back to Alabama, where they originally came from.

I thought that some of these people looked familiar when I saw them mingling around town earlier in the day, and Walter confirmed for me they were in Bangor about two years earlier during their trek north. They had all been guaranteed work in the new steel mill that was being constructed in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The mill was the brainchild of New Englander, Henry Melville Whitney, the same fellow who had organized the Dominion Coal Company in Cape Breton around 1893.

In 1899, Nova Scotia Steel, a steel-producing operation out of New Glasgow, NS turned down Whitney's offer of a merger of their two companies. Whitney knew he could get easy access to coal (he already owned it) and iron ore from Bell Island off Newfoundland, so he gathered some financiers from Toronto and Montreal and formed his own company, The Dominion Iron and Steel Company or DISCO as they called it. They started building a steel plant almost immediately. By 1902 it was in operation.

Walter claimed that he and his companions were recruited to work at DISCO through agents at steel mills they worked in throughout the country. Hundreds of skilled Black furnace men were enticed to come and help build and work in the blast furnaces at the steel plant in Sydney. The blast furnace combines coke made from coal, iron ore and limestone to produce liquid iron, which eventually becomes steel. It's hot and hellish work and DISCO officials insisted on hiring only "first class men in every way," men that they could "rely on at all times."

Hundreds of skilled Black furnace men were enticed to come and help build and work in the blast furnaces at the steel plant in Sydney. The blast furnace combines coke made from coal, iron ore and limestone to produce liquid iron, which eventually becomes steel. It's hot and hellish work and DISCO officials insisted on hiring only "first class men in every way," men that they could "rely on at all times."
Some of the other men began talking to me and claimed that Blacks had been employed in the American iron-making industry since 1842, and that since 1875 many blacks were recognized as skilled. They complained they hadn't gone all the way to Cape Breton to serve as labourers in a foreign country, when they could have decent skilled jobs in the States. I asked them why they went to Cape Breton then. Competitive wages, free transportation, accommodations provided by the company, and a decent future for them and their families made the move easy. They claimed that many people in the iron and steel industry were familiar with DISCO and some of their supervisors knew the men running the operation in Sydney, because they had formerly worked with them.

Numerous men mentioned J.H. Means, the Superintendent of Furnaces, as instrumental in recruiting them to Cape Breton. They thought Means was from Alabama, and he was well connected with Alabama and Pennsylvanian steelmen. He recruited men from these contacts as well as from people he knew in New York and Maryland. By early 1902 many Black American steel workers had taken up residence in Sydney and were working at the steel plant.

Housing was a problem right from the beginning, I was told. They were no fine homes with gardens, the families were housed in shacks that were nothing more than bunkhouses normally only used for single men. Skilled white employees lived in the Ashby area of Sydney or "overtown", while the skilled Blacks and any other unskilled labourers lived in Whitney Pier, many almost adjacent to the plant or its coke ovens. They called this area Cokovia or Cokeville (see 1902 map this page). Most of these living quarters lacked sewer or water hookup, were filthy and had poor ventilation.

Lillian CowardThe men claimed that even though they had important jobs at the steel plant they were at the bottom rung of the social scale. They had to open their own school in 1902 with the aid of the African Methodist Episcopal church which was formed earlier that same year. Mixing between Blacks and Whites rarely happened socially and the Black person's lot in life was not moving forward. The $2:00 a day wage was really only $1:25 and they didn't see any of this until they had worked over sixty days. Enough was enough.

I left Walter, his wife and the rest of the Black families at the police station and roamed back down the street. A few Blacks were hanging about the restaurant at the corner, and I knew they weren't local; more displaced Cape Breton workers I thought. It was only a couple of years ago that these people were streaming through here at a fast and furious pace. It was as if they couldn't wait to leave the States and settle in Canada. They had some of the happiest looks on their faces that I'd seen on just about anybody. My how things changed. I couldn't help wonder if they'd been hoodwinked by someone in heading all the way to Cape Breton to work.

Filed by your correspondent for the Bangor Daily News

After they left a couple of days later I fired off a letter to a newspaperman I knew in Sydney. He worked for the Sydney Record and got back to me some time later. He said that a steel company official told him Alabama Blacks "were all doing well," earning twice as much as they did before, and they were happy and contented."

Sydney, Nova Scotia, February 2001-From 1901 to 1904 hundreds of Black men and their families tramped back and forth from the steel cities of the United States to a fledgling steel plant city in Cape Breton that had been described in 1902 by the Canadian Manufacturing Association as, "the outstanding feature of our industrial development of the past few years." The steel plant's founder Henry Whitney said, "I cannot control my enthusiasm when I think of the future." Sadly, this future was short and bleak for the skilled migrant Black men who were sold on the dream of a new country to live and raise their families in.

Faced with the obvious sterotypism of the day, poor despicable living conditions, and a molten stream of broken promises, almost every one of these families returned home. Many died along the way. J.H. Means left the plant in early 1903 and it may have been his leaving that influenced many Blacks to leave. He had recruited many of them and his absence may have removed any faint hope of social advancement they may have hoped for. By the end of 1904 this African-American community was all but dead. The school died, the church died, the institutions they so quickly built in Sydney all but disappeared.

Lucus ToussaintBy 1911 the plant was expanding at an incredible rate. New workers were needed and the company began to actively recruit Blacks from the British West Indies and especially the island of Barbados. Between 1911 and 1914 hundreds of these immigrants settled in Sydney and worked as mainly unskilled labourers at the steel plant. Some also worked in the mines and settled in Glace Bay and New Waterford. These people are the ancestors of the small African-Canadian community that resides in Cape Breton today.

Communities will always be an evolving place. The Whitney Pier region of Sydney was probably one of the most cosmopolitan areas on the planet during the early years of the last century. If you search back enough you can probably trace back dozens of different ethnic groups to a period of time when their ancestors came to work at the steel plant. But there is always an exception to every rule. The American Blacks played a crucial role in the very beginning of the Sydney steel plant, but never stayed around to reap any benefits. It may be fair to surmise that the development of Sydney over the past 100 years is owed to a few hundred Black men who got the first blast furnace operational. Their expertise cannot be underestimated.

At a time when Sydney Steel is on its deathbed, after 100 years of operation, the contribution of the people who built it, worked there, and raised families around it, must be recognized. The majority of these people stayed, the American Blacks left, but the legacy of steel making in Sydney needs to be remembered in a true light, not as a bargain basement sale or an environmental war zone. The men, women and children that walked from Sydney to Maine and beyond in the dead of winter in 1903 and 1904 for the hopes of a better life, need to be remembered for more than this.

A Note

I encourage anyone to read Elizabeth Beaton's paper "An African-American Community in Cape Breton, 1901-1904" published in Acadiensis, XXIV, 2 Spring 1995. Elizabeth teaches history at UCCB and most of the material for this article comes from her research and she should be commended for it. I invented the correspondent from Maine, but stories of the plight of the returning Black workers were reported in the Sydney Record and the Bangor Daily News.

Working in Steel, The Early Years in Canada, 1883-1935 by Craig Heron is an interesting book and the quotes by the CMA and Henry Whitney regarding the future success of DISCO were taken from it.

Community meeting, Melnick Labour Hall, Whitney Pier in Sydney, Cape Breton, mid-1950s. Courtesy the Coward family

A rare though blurred 1901 photograph inside the Sydney steel works of black furnace workers on the DISCO cast house floor. Beaton Institute, photographer unknown.

Black steel workers marshalling blast furnace 'miniature' in coronation parade. Beaton Institute, photographer unknown.

Lillian Coward (centre) was the first wife of Arthur Coward, who emigrated from Barbados in 1911 (and great-grandfather of Justin Coward, see centrefold). Mae Crawford (on right), also from the West Indies, was a well-known community entrepreneur (West Indian dishes).

Throughout Nova Scotia, the Black community always met on a regular basis in similar halls whenever the occasion arose.

Lucus Toussaint emigrated to the Pier in 1911 from Grenada. He is the maternal grandfather of Curtis Coward and great-grandfather of Justin Coward (see centrefold).

Albert Almon Plan of Sydney, 1902. Whitney Pier (Ward V), indicating "Cokeville". Courtesy of the Whitney Pier Historical Society and the Beaton Institute.

*Paul MacDougall, a freelance writer and microbiology technologist, teaches in the Environmental Health Program at UCCB.

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