Saturday, 31 May 2014


                    BLACK              SOCIAL            HISTORY                                                                                                                                                                                                               Portia White (June 24, 1911 – February 13, 1968) was a Canadian operatic contralto.

Early Life and Family

Portia May White was born in 1911 in Truro, Nova Scotia, the third of thirteen children born to Izie Dora and William Andrew White. Her mother was a descendant of Black Loyalists, while her father was the son of former slaves from Virginia, and on his graduation from Acadia University in Nova Scotia in 1903, he became the university's first black graduate. He later became the minister of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, where Izie Dora White was the musical director. White began her musical career there as a choir member at the age of six.[1]
Many members of White's family achieved fame in Canadian cultural and political life. Her brother Bill was the first Canadian of African heritage to run for political office in Canada, standing as a candidate for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in the 1949 election, and her brother Jack was a noted Canadian labour union leader.[2] In addition to Bill's children, politician Sheila White and folk musician Chris White, Portia White was also the aunt of Senator Donald Oliver and playwright George Elliott Clarke.
White entered Dalhousie University in 1929, and from the early 1930s taught in Africville, a small, sea-side community, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, largely populated by Black Nova Scotians. She won a scholarship to continue her musical training at the Halifax Conservatory in 1939 with noted Italian baritone Ernesto Vinci.

Singing Career and Later Life

White made her national debut as a singer in Toronto in 1941, and her international debut in New York City in 1944. A three-month tour of Central and South America followed in 1946, and she sang in France and Switzerland in 1948. White sang both classical European music and Negro spirituals. Critics responded favourably to her voice. Hector Charlesworth's review in the Toronto Globe and Mail observed, "she sings Negro spirituals with pungent expression and beauty of utterance", while writing in the Toronto Evening Telegram, Edward Wodson said White had a "coloured and beautifully shaded contralto all the way. . . . It is a natural voice, a gift from heaven."[3]
Vocal problems later forced her to retire from singing in 1952, and she settled in Toronto where she taught some of Canada's foremost singers of the day.[4][5] Her students included Dinah ChristieRobert Goulet and Lorne Greene. She also taught at Branksome Hall, a private girls’ school in Toronto.
Portia White briefly left retirement to perform for Queen Elizabeth II, at the opening of the Confederation Centre of the Arts in CharlottetownPrince Edward Island, in 1964. This was to be one of her last major concerts.[2][4]
She died in Toronto in 1968, following a long battle with cancer.


Portia White has been declared "a person of national historic significance" by the Government of Canada, and she was featured in a special issue of Millennium postage stamps celebrating Canadian achievement.[5] The Nova Scotia Talent Trust was created in her honour, as was the Portia White Prize.


  • Think on Me. 1968. White House Records WH-6901
  • Great Voices of Canada, Vol 5. White et al. Analekta AN 2 7806
  • First You Dream. 1999. C. White W001-2
  • Library and Archives Canada also holds audio recordings of White's live performances.