Jim Crow Lives in Dresden

Uncle Tom sleeps uneasily in Ontario’s Dresden where all men are not born equal, where his descendants can’t get a store haircut, a permanent wave, or a restaurant meal

SIDNEY KATZ November 1 1949

Jim Crow Lives in Dresden

Uncle Tom sleeps uneasily in Ontario’s Dresden where all men are not born equal, where his descendants can’t get a store haircut, a permanent wave, or a restaurant meal

SIDNEY KATZ November 1 1949

Jim Crow Lives in Dresden

Uncle Tom sleeps uneasily in Ontario’s Dresden where all men are not born equal, where his descendants can’t get a store haircut, a permanent wave, or a restaurant meal


THE CANADIAN who looks down on the Southern United States for “Jim Crow” racial segregation will suffer a rude shock on visiting the sleepy agricultural centre of Dresden, Ont., 300 of whose 1,700 citizens have Negro blood.

Although Dresden’s citizens do not like to talk about it, Negroes cannot eat at the town’s three restaurants serving regular meals, cannot get a haircut in the four regular barbershops, cannot send their wives to the only beauty parlor.

Dresden’s main tourist attraction is Uncle Tom s grave, yet Uncle Tom’s descendants do not attend the white people’s church. They are barred from all but one of the town’s poolrooms. There is not a single colored member in any of the service clubs. The Canadian Legion branch welcomes Negro members only at stag affairs.

The chances of even a trained young Negro getting a good nonmanual job are almost nil. I did not find a single Negro in Dresden working in an office or waiting on customers.

I visited Dresden last month. It is an uneasy, paradoxical town with a heavy guilt complex. The colored population is resentful and bitter. The whites are unhappy and stubbornly unwilling to discuss the problem. And underneath the placid surface you can sense the fear expressed in the twin bogies which I heard over and over again: “Look mister, would you like a nigger to marry your sister?” and “Well, I'm against discrimination —but I got to think of my business.”

One of the paradoxes of Dresden is that among young people up to 17 and 18 there is little discrimination. But when a Negro reaches the age where he can marry or take a job the barrier is erected. Another paradox is that in the farm country around the town, whites and an additional 300 Negroes work and mix freely without friction. Dresden, with its heavy Negro population, is an island of prejudice.

The feeling of common enterprise is almost nonexistent in the town. Divided by race, it has lagged in community matters. Its once-popular street dances were discontinued when Negroes tried to cross the roped area which separated them from whites. Its Legion branch has eliminated mixed social affairs because of the fear that Negro members might turn up.

Dresden has no first-rate hotel (though nearby Thamesville, one third the size, has), no tennis courts, golf courses, bowling alleys or swimming pool; no home and school club, dramatic society, town hall or community centre. As Mayor Walter Weese told me: “We can’t really get rolling until we have the full co-operation of both races.”

Mayor Talks of Communism

IRONICALLY, Dresden’s chief claim to fame is that it served as the terminus of the “underground railway” granting refuge to scores of Negroes fleeing U. S. slavery 119 years ago. The Negro population descend from those refugees, one of whom was Rev. Josiah Henson, the original “Uncle Tom” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel. He lies buried just outside the town’s limits. His direct descendant, “Tex” Henson, a paratrooper veteran and local hero, left Dresden soon after his discharge when a restaurant refused to sell him a cup of coffee.

What astonishes the visitor to Dresden is this: most white townsfolk blandly accept Jim Crow practices. They are sensitive and hurt because outsiders have condemned them. They are annoyed

because a small group of colored people, led by Bill Carter, a well-to-do farmer, have banded together to secure their full rights as citizens. The white people of Dresden seem to feel that the real evil is rot the practice of discrimination but the open discussion of it.

Recently a Negro delegation asked town council to prohibit discrimination in the restaurants. I asked various whites how they felt about this. Rev. Lawrence Newton, the soft-spoken head of the Dresden Ministerial Association, told me: “The

less it is discussed the better.” The Ministerial Association took no stand on the proposal.

In the little cluttered office which overlooks his self-service groceteria business Mayor Weese boomed: “If only the papers would stop writing

about it. The colored people here are given the same rights and privileges as anyone else. But this is a democratic country . . . You can’t force anyone to serve Negroes. Perhaps you can get away

with that sort of thing under Communism . . .”

Yet in Dresden you see colored and white children walking the streets arm in arm. Last year’s high-school valedictorian was a colored girl.

“In the school we’ve gotten out of the habit of thinking in terms of color,” says Principal Ed Logan.

And insurance dealer George Brooker, the chubby, friendly head of the 75-meml>er Boy Scout-Wolf Cub organization (15 Negro members) says: “At camp we eat, sleep, play and work

together. We’ve never had a hint of trouble on account of race.”

There is paradox in the white and colored patients chatting side by side in the doctors’ offices; and in the white and colored employees of Canadian Canneries or the O. & W. McVain wheel factory working peacefully together.

There are no housing restrictions: colored auctioneer Percy Carter’s home is around the corner from Mayor Weese’s.

There are Negro success stories in Dresden—like farmer Carter whose 325 acres are worth $30,000. There are, too, close friendships between Negro and white: Bill Carter’s 18-yearold son and Mayor Weese’s son are inseparable.

In the farm area outside the town, mixing is common. I watched a group of white and colored farmers passing a pitcher of cold water from mouth to mouth during a breather in a tobacco field. As Bill Carter explains it, “We work for each other, visit back and forth, eat at the same table. But if we should happen into town together, something happens. We can’t eat at the same restaurant.”

The restaurants have been closed to them as long as the colored people of Dresden can remember. Until 1946 nobody brought the matter up. Then, after a near fracas when a manager ordered six Negroes out of his res-

taurant, Bill and Percy Carter formed a committee to discuss racial discrimination with the town’s businessmen and council members. Three meetings were held, two at Mayor Weese’s house, one at Bill Carter’s. But the whites opposed legislating against discrimination. “Many people object to eating with Negroes,” they said. “You can’t ruin a man’s business.”

To win them over the colored committee polled 118 of the leading townsmen with this questionnaire: “Are you opposed to racial discrimination as it is presently practiced in Dresden?” All but three wrote that they were. (The three discriminating restaurant owners weren’t canvassed.)

Armed with 115 signatures the Negro deputation appeared at the last council meeting before the 1948 election and announced they would campaign for a bylaw to outlaw discrimination. This had an electrifying effect. Mayor Harold McKim and practically all his council said they wouldn’t stand for re-election. Walter Weese who had repeatedly recorded his opposition to discrimination was acclaimed mayor.

But in the next two months the Negroes got nowhere in their plea for a bylaw. Mayor Weese sat squarely on the fence when the matter came up. Finally council decided to let the people decide the question by a referendum. But the referendum was called off one day before the vote, on April 18, 1948, because it had not been properly advertised as required by law.

A month later when the delegation challenged the mayor to hold the vote he balked. “There’s been too much publicity. A vote now would not be in your interests.”

When the delegation returned in July he refused to discuss the matter. “It’s closed,” he said. And that’s where it stands today.

The restaurant issue has shaken Dresden as it hasn’t been shaken before. Press and radio broadcast the details nationally. Disapproving letters poured in. A few Negro families canceled orders for new cars with the local white dealer. Colored housewives suddenly stopped coming into Weese’s store to load up with groceries on Saturdays. Bill Carter and Hugh Burnette, another committee member, got threatening letters.

The three restaurants in question —all on the main street, St. George —are the only ones which serve regular meals. (Watson’s Diner and Clarke’s serve soup and sandwiches and the Morgan House hotel serves meals in its dining room at certain specified hours. These do not discriminate.) The whites - only restaurants are Kay’s Grill, the largest, owned by Morley McKay; Fitzgerald’s Grill, owned by Krnie Fitzgerald; and Emerson’s Restaurant, run by Mutt Emerson.

“Niggers Became Too Cocky”

McKay is regarded as the most influential of the three and the firmest advocate of segregation. He is a burly, black-haired Strot, energetic and nervous, who fiercely resents interference in his business. “I've run it for 26 years myself,” he told me. “Nobody is going to tell me how to run it now.”

Mixing customers, he believes, would drive him into bankruptcy. He doesn’t believe a bylaw, even if passed, could be enforced. He says that under a democratic form of government a Negro hus every right to buy and operate a restaurant of his own if he feels like it. Negroes who try to eat ut his place “aren’t the best type,” he says. “After all, the best ty pe of person doesn't go where he’s not wanted.”

McKay used to keep a couple of framed prints of Uncle Tom over his soda fountain but later took them down. “I had to,” he told me. “The niggers became too cocky. They used to come in and say. 'You show pictures of Uncle Tom, but you won’t serve us.’ ”

Few Negroes try to get served at the grill now. But occasionally a carload of colored tourists will wander in and McKay tells them they aren’t wanted.

“It makes me real mad having to go through the whole business,” he confessed to me. “Nothing else bothers me as much. It's a feeling 1 can’t quite explain. Do you know that for three days afterward I get raging mad every time 1 see a Negro. Maybe it’s like an animal who’s had a smell of blood.”

The other two restaurant owners aren’t as flatly in favor of discrimination as McKay. Says Ernie Fitzgerald: "If the other restaurants would drop the ban, so would 1.” And Matt Emerson, who has the only place in town which boasts a television set, says, “The colored people here are as good as you or 1. I would just as soon serve them in my restaurant if 1 were sure it didn’t hurt my business.”

Yet antidiscrimination laws in nearby Chatham and Wallaceburg haven’t hurt the restaurant business there. And in Dresden’s Morgan House, run by Bruno Levenauski, a stocky blond Lithuanian who hates discrimination, Negroes and whites can eat and drink beer together. When he purchased the hotel there were predictions that he’d go bust in three months and that the Negroes would push the whites out. Neither has happened.

To get a haircut a Dresden Negro must seek out someone like George Burns, who delivers bread by day, cuts hair at home at night. The stand of Dresden’s four barbers can’t be justified on grounds of personal cleanliness. Dr. Roger Knipe, head of the Kent County Health Unit, told me: “There’s little difference between the health and cleanliness of whites and colored in the Dresden area.” Dentist Jack Woods described his colored patients as “appreciative, friendly, honest and clean.”

I asked barber Bill Yontz, a slight bespectacled man active in Boy Scout work, why he refused to cut Negro hair. He said: “I’ve spent 20 years

building up my business. If I took Negro customers I’d lose 99% of my business and my clean shop would go all to pieces.”

Then Yontz pointed to a photo of his daughter on the wall. “You know, of course, what they’re aiming at?” he said. “They want to marry white women. That’s the main reason they’re agitating for rights. And that’s why I’m against giving way to them.”

There has been only one recent case of intermarriage in Dresden, that of Ollie Rickman, a sash maker at Bresett’s Lumber Company, who has a white wife. But in the days of early settlement in the 1870’s, when whites and Negroes mixed freely, intermarriage was frequent. Councilor Mike Fry, a white grocer who has fought discrimination, often says that a sizable portion of Dresden’s colored people are more white than Negro.

In Fry’s store I saw Negro women with light skin, blond and red hair and men whose features would hardly identify them as Negroes. These people could pass as white in Detroit, Windsor or New York. In Dresden they are regarded as pure Negro.

The red-haired woman can’t get an appointment at Pat Dunlop’s beauty parlor. “When colored women ask for an appointment I sometimes tell them that I haven’t got the special equipment needed for crinkly hair,” Dunlop told me. He is president of the Canadian Legion branch.

Mixed Socials Were Stopped

Two of the town’s three poolrooms keep out colored men. Says taciturn young Charlie Houston: “Nope. We

don't let Negroes in. Never have and never will. They’ve got a place of their own.”

A few years back Hugh Burnette and a white friend entered a restricted poolroom. When the manager noticed Burnette he switched off all the lights. The other patrons -many of them former schoolmates of Burnette’s— simply stopped their game and waited. Burnette went into the street and explained his predicament to a policeman. The cop told him nothing could be done.

Of the Legion’s 118 members eight are colored. They mix freely at meetings, sports and stags, but coloreds are not welcome at mixed socials. The Legion of World War 1 broke up over thus very issue. One Legion member put it this way: “It’s perfectly all

right for them to join the branch, because, after all, they did fight over-

seas, but when one of them starts dancing with my wife—that’s when I take my coat off.” Now mixed socials have been taken off the Legion’s program.

The two all-white service clubs, Kinsmen and Optimist, feel uneasy at the prospect of a Negro applying for membership. As Optimist president Stan Wilmott says: “If one applied

I don’t know what would happen. I’d rather not talk about it.” Once officials of the Orange order appeared before a colored Baptist congregation and invited the men to become Orange members. The Negroes were pleased until it became apparent that a segregated lodge was contemplated. The offer was refused.

No Devil in the Town?

The fear of intermarriage voiced by barber Yontz lies deep in the hearts of many Dresden folk. Not long ago a Negro youth walking home with a white girl—a high-school classmate— casually slipped an arm over her shoulder. Before nightfall the story was all over town and scores of daughters were being lectured by anxious parents.

Yet none of the Negroes I spoke to were out-and-out advocates of intermarriage. Bill Thompson, a 34-yearold colored farmer, is firmly opposed to it. “First thing you’d know,” he explained, “there’d be a fight in the family and someone would say the colored man isn’t as good as a white.”

To a young Negro in Dresden, anxious for a career, the town is frustrating. The ambitious ones all want to leave home. Farming is the only place where race doesn’t put a colored person at a disadvantage.

Elva Carter, for example, came home from a bookkeeping course in Chatham and answered ads for two years without encouragement. Now she’s back in Chatham—a bookkeeper in a department store. Dorothy Davis, who could pass for white, gets work as a trained typist outside of Dresden. Now she’s home again, peeling tomatoes in a cannery.

Dresden has seven churches. “There are so many for a place this size,” old Ed Kyle, the town clerk, told me, “that the Devil couldn’t possibly get into town.” Lawrence Newton, the Ministerial Association president, says prejudice has been exaggerated. Like many Dresden people he claims that matters are much worse in towns like Wallaceburg, 14 miles away. There, he told me, a Negro isn’t accepted as a resident.

But when I checked I found that a Negro, William Highgate, formerly of Dresden, had just built a home in Wallaceburg and I talked to Negroes who have eaten meals in restaurant , received haircuts and beauty treatments and attended public dances there. Yet the rumor (that other towns are worst') persists in Dresden.

When I suggested to Rev. Wesley Latimer, of the United Church, that racial discrimination violated the Christian principle of universal brotherhood, he observed that “we live in an imperfect society. Racial discrimination exists in Dresden, but where doesn’t it exist? You can’t push it out. What is needed is guidance by men of good will.”

There are two colored pastors in the town. One is retired. The other, Rev. George Simmons, a good-humored man who quotes frequently from the Scriptures, accompanied the Negro delegation in its appearance before the town council. Besides legislation, Simmons thinks the problem should be approached in a Christian way.

"We need a lot of good preaching, exchange of pulpits, outside religious speakers and interdenominational reli-

gious councils,” he suggests. He explained the unpopularity of the Negro delegation this way: “If a man is doing something wrong that he knows is wrong and you tell him, then he gets mad. Most white folks know that it’s wrong to segregate.”

The town has two newspapers. Donald (“Gummer”) Spearman, the 27year-old editor of the largest weekly, Dresden News (circ. 1,600), says that his paper rarely runs editorials and when it does comments only on matters of “vital local interest.” The News has run no editorial on racial discrimination. A recent editorial welcomed the arrival of a new hardware industry.

The Dresden Times (Circ. 1,300), owned by newcomers Bill and Jim Bowes, ran a single thoughtful editorial on discrimination on December 16, 1948, soon after its publishers came to town. “Anyone that claims racial discrimination in Dresden doesn’t exist,” it said, “is kidding himself. And the blame does not rest on a few individuals. It rests fairly and squarely on everyone because unless the majority of us thought that way the situation could not exist . . .”

There was a marked reaction to this editorial. Some people dropped in to say they didn’t like it. More talked behind the editors’ backs. The subject was never again brought up editorially.

Several whites told me the colored people in Dresden did not resent restrictions placed on them; that many of them had expressed disapproval of the work of Bill Carter and his committee. But in the safety of their homes, knowing they won’t be quoted by name, the Negroes let their true feelings emerge. One young man: “When I’m refused service, I see red. I don’t feel right for a week.” A young woman in her 20’s: “I’ve lived here

all my life. So has my father and grandfather. This town belongs to us as well as the whites.” A middle-aged mother: “They took our sons in

wartime, now they won’t let the same boys eat in their restaurants.”

A Chance for the Churches

There is no easy answer to Dresden’s problem. Its solution, when it comes, must come from within the town itself. But perhaps the most specific suggestions have come from an outsider, Irving Himmel, executive secretary for the Canadian Association of Civil Liberties, an organization which has had this peculiar little community under examination for some time.

Himmel suggests leadership should first come from Dresden’s churches: The ministers should preach tolerance and brotherhood, should take a firm stand on specific issues, should sponsor mixed get-togethers to work jointly on religious and philanthropic activities.

Service clubs and women’s groups can’t ignore the problem, he maintains. They should face it squarely and help marshal the energies of colored and white alike to work for civic improvement.

On a town level Himmel feels the council should pass a bylaw licensing all public places and revoking these licenses if racial barriers are erected. The town’s hand would be immeasurably strengthened, he says, if the province would amend the Municipal Act along the same lines, as well as passing a Fair Employment Practices Act to ensure a fair deal to all job seekers.

This is a program which could be applied not only in one town, but in all parts of the country. For the sad fact is that Dresden is not the only place in Canada where discriminatio ; is practiced, nor is the Negro its only victim.