Early Years and Education
Portia White was the third of 13 children born to William A. White, whose parents had been slaves in Virginia, and Izie Dora White, who was descended from Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia. The second Black Canadian admitted to Acadia University, William White graduated in 1903 with a degree in Theology. He later became the first Black Canadian to receive a Doctorate of Divinity from Acadia University. He also helped form the No. 2 Construction Battalion — the first and only all-Black battalion in Canadian military history — and served in the unit as the only Black chaplain in the British army during the First World War. Following the war, he moved the family to Halifax, where he became pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.
Portia began singing in the church choir under her mother’s direction at age six. By the age of eight, she was singing the soprano parts from the opera Lucia de Lammermoor. She was so determined to become a professional singer that she walked 10 miles a week for music lessons. She started her teacher training at Dalhousie University in 1929. After graduating, she became a schoolteacher in Black Nova Scotian communities such as Africville and Lucasville.
Voice Training and Professional Performances
In the 1930s, White took voice lessons as a mezzo-soprano with Bertha Cruikshanks at the Halifax Conservatory of Music. She also sang on devotional radio broadcasts hosted by her father. She competed in the Halifax Music Festival, where her extraordinary voice won the Helen Kennedy Silver Cup in 1935, 1937 and 1938. The Halifax Ladies' Musical Club provided a scholarship for White to study with Ernesto Vinci at the Halifax Conservatory of Music in 1939. Under Vinci, she began to sing as a contralto.
After giving a handful of recitals at Acadia University and Mount Allison University in 1940, White made her formal debut at age 30 at Toronto's Eaton Auditorium on 7 November 1941. Reviewing her performance in the Globe and Mail, Hector Charlesworth stated that she sings “with pungent expression and beauty of utterance.” Writing in the Evening Telegram, Edward Wodson said White had a “coloured and beautifully shaded contralto… It is a natural voice, a gift from heaven.”
White resigned her teaching position in 1941 and continued to give concerts in Canada. After many difficulties obtaining bookings because of her race (see also: Racism; Prejudice and Discrimination), she reached the high point of her career with a widely acclaimed recital at New York’s Town Hall on 13 March 1944. She was the first Canadian to perform there. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust was established in 1944 specifically to enable White to concentrate on her professional career. Two more Town Hall concerts followed in 1944 and 1945, and that year White signed with Columbia Concerts Incorporated, the largest artist agency in North America.
Later Career and Teaching
White herself began teaching voice in Toronto, both privately and at Branksome Hall, a school for girls. Her private students over the years included Dinah Christie, Anne Marie Moss, Lorne Greene, Don Francks and Robert Goulet. By the mid-1950s, she sporadically resumed her singing career. She sang only a few concerts in the 1950s and 1960s, one of which was before Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Charlottetown's Confederation Centre of the Arts on 6 October 1964. White's final public performance took place in July 1967 at the World Baptist Federation in Ottawa. White toured North America with Columbia Concerts, but following a tour of Central and South America in 1946, she began experiencing vocal difficulties as well as problems with her management. In 1948, she toured the Maritimes and sang in Switzerland and France, but soon retired from public performance. In 1952, she moved to Toronto to undertake further studies with Gina Cigna and Irene Jessner at the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Recordings and Tributes
Portia White did not make any studio recordings, but her voice can be heard in several concert recordings, including a song recital titled Think on Me (1968). Library and Archives Canada acquired from the White family audio recordings of her performances in New York and Moncton, New Brunswick, in 1944 and 1945. From these, Analekta released two songs on Great Voices of Canada, Volume 5 (1994). White’s nephew, award-winning folk musician Chris White, released the CD First You Dream (1999). A documentary by Sylvia Hamilton, Portia White: Think on Me, was broadcast on CBC TV in 2001.
In 1995, White was named a “person of national historic significance” by the Government of Canada. Canada Post issued a stamp bearing her image in 1999, and a life-sized sculpture of her was carved from a tree in front of Truro’s Zion Baptist Church in 2004. The Portia White Prize is awarded each year by the Nova Scotia Arts Council to an outstanding Nova Scotian in the arts. The inaugural recipient of the award in 1998 was White’s great-nephew, the writer George Elliott Clarke. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust presents the Portia White Scholarship Award to exceptional vocalists, and also named its annual gala concert in her honour. At the East Coast Music Awards in 2007, White was posthumously awarded the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2016, White was one of the women considered by the Bank of Canada to be featured on a new $10 banknote, an honour that ultimately went to fellow Nova Scotian Viola Desmond (see also Women on Canadian Banknotes). In February 2018, an exhibit was launched at the Don Heights Unitarian Congregation in North York, Ontario, to commemorate 50 years since White’s death. It was organized by the Ontario Black History Society and White’s relatives and introduced by Clarke. The exhibit consisted of portraits, photographs, recordings and personal items, such as a copy of The Book of American Negro Spirituals that was given to White by architect Andrew Cobb, and a rare piece of sheet music by American composer W.C. Handy. There were tentative plans to send the exhibit to locations across Canada, including White’s hometown of Truro, before housing it in a permanent archive.
Many of White’s documents and personal belongings are held at Library and Archives Canada, the National Gallery of Canada, the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, the Ontario Black History Society and Dalhousie, Acadia and Stanford universities.
In addition to her father, George Elliott Clarke and Chris White, Portia White had several other notable family members. Her brother Bill White was a composer and social activist who became the first Black Canadian to run for federal office, representing the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in the Toronto constituency of Spadina in 1949. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1970. Another brother, Jack White, was a noted labour union leader and one of the first Black Canadians to run for provincial office in Ontario; and her niece, Sheila White, is a noted political consultant and commentator.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.