In Memoriam: Bromley Armstrong, Black Civil Rights and Trade Union Activist

August 30, 2018 | Bill V.

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As we approach Labour Day it's fitting to honour and celebrate the life of labour and civil rights activist Bromley Armstrong who died recently. 

Armstrong was born in Jamaica and came to Canada in 1947 when he was 19 years old. He became the first Black welder at Massey-Harris and that sparked his interest in labour activism.

In the early 1950s he found his second passion with civil rights activism. In Ontario two laws were passed by Premier Leslie Frost, the Fair Employment Practices Act and the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. The first outlawed discrimination in the workplace, the second outlawed it in businesses that served the public. Enacted in April 1954, the Fair Accommodation Practices Act stated: "No one can deny to any person or class of persons the accommodation, services or facilities usually available to members of the public."

 

Toronto & York Region Labour Council video "Welcome to Dresden"

In 1954 he was part of a group that staged a sit-in in the small town of Dresden, Ontario protesting a local restaurant that would not serve Black customers. This was especially galling as Dresden was the traditional end of the Underground Railroad in Canada and in the 1950s had a large local Black community.  The local restaurant owner was charged under these new provincial laws.  It's been pointed out that Armstrong's group protest predated the American Woolworths sit-ins or Rosa Parks' protest. 

You may also be interested in the children's book on Dresden and the struggles there called Season of Rage: Hugh Burnett and the Struggle for Civil Rights: "Dresden is the site of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Slaves who made their way north through the Underground Railroad created the thriving Dawn Settlement in Dresden before and during the Civil War... In 1954 something extraordinary happened. The National Unity Association was a group of African Canadian citizens in Dresden who had challenged the racist attitudes of the 1950s and had forged an alliance with civil rights activists in Toronto to push the Ontario Government for changes to the law in order to outlaw discrimination."

Season of rage Hugh Burnett and the struggle for civil rights

 

Armstrong was also part of a contingent that approach Ottawa in the 1950s to challenge Federal immigration policies which were heavily biased against people of colour (see the video below "Welcome to Canada" where he's interviewed).  He was also involved in "rent-ins" in Toronto in the 1960s, targeting landlords who would not rent to people of colour. 

 

The Toronto and York Region Labour Council "Welcome to Canada" a history of immigration policy including interviews with Bromley Armstrong.  

I read several chapters of Bromley's autobiography / memoirs and I have to say the way he documents his struggles and the racism he faced is pretty bleak.  Although he was highly entrepreneurial and broke many barriers ultimately he was forced out of the insurance business.  On a daily basis he dealt with blatant racism and had many difficulties in supporting his family. But he persevered and ultimately contributed much to his community and more broadly to Ontario's multicultural society. The Toronto and York Region Labour Council established the The Bromley Amstrong Award in 2004 to commemorate the courage, dedication and outstanding service of Bromley L. Armstrong to the labour and human rights movements in Canada.

Bromley  tireless champion for just causes  memoirs of Bromley L. Armstrong

Armstrong was very active in the heyday of civil rights activism throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1970s/80s he was appointed to various boards/tribunals by the Ontario government. Below is a short list of some of his accomplishments:

 

The National Film Board has produced a documentary called Journey to Justice "which pays tribute to a group of Canadians who took racism to court. They are Canada's unsung heroes in the fight for Black civil rights. Focusing on the 1930s to the 1950s, this film documents the struggle of 6 people who refused to accept inequality (including Armstrong)."

The DVD is available at the Library but you can also watch 40+ minutes online at the NFB website as well. 

  Journey to justice NFB Dvd

Journey to Justice (DVD 2006): "this film documents the struggle of ... Viola Desmond, Fred Christie, Hugh Burnette, Bromley Armstrong, Donald Willard Moore, and Stanley G. Grizzle. These brave pioneers helped secure justice for all Canadians"

 

You can find additional information and biographical information about Bromley Armstrong here:

 

2011 Harry Jerome Award - Lifetime Achievement: Bromley Armstrong

 

For more detailed information about Bromley Armstrong and other Black Canadians you may be interested in Who's Who in Black Canada 2: "A directory with biographical profiles of 700+ highly successful Blacks from across Canada (some now in the US) who are excelling in a wide range of professions (e.g. medicine, law, business, engineering, the arts), in community service, or both. Summaries are 200-750 words in length and includes career highlights; achievements; education; awards; publications; current contact information, etc." The information is also available online through Google books

Who's Who in Black Canada

 

You may also be interested to know about the Library's:

Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection:

This collection features over 16,000 print and audiovisual materials for adults, children, and teens about the Black and Caribbean historical and cultural experience – with a special emphasis on Canadian content. Material covers history, social science, and the contributions and achievements of Blacks in Canada. The collection also includes a small selection of titles about world figures in Black history and culture.

Recognized as one of the most significant Black and Caribbean heritage collections in Canada, it is an invaluable resource for the Black and Caribbean community as well as students and researchers.

Formats available include:

  • Print: fiction and non-fiction, newspapers and periodicals
  • CDs
  • DVDs
  • Audiobooks
  • Large Print
  • Digitized content

The collection is available at four branches across the city:

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