The time has certainly come to celebrate this Canadian legend’s pioneering work, which paved the way for other Black Canadian artists, along with former principal and fellow Nova Scotian Edith Read’s role in establishing her career.
On April 11, Branksome held a special plaque unveiling and commemoration ceremony—“A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Portia White”—for her relatives and invited guests, in the Dance Studio in the Athletics and Wellness Centre. It was an historic occasion and a meaningful one for her relatives in attendance, community members, and for students who prepared musical and dance performances, and studied Portia White, in advance.
The ceremony was live-streamed to Branksome students and to the wider community, with emcee Maria Muiruri, Student Government Prefect and Co-Head of the Black Student Union. The plaque will soon be placed at the south-west corner of Mount Pleasant Road and Elm Avenue.
A show-stopping moment was a pre-recorded spiritual, “Ride On, King Jesus,” from world-renowned soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee—who played Portia in White’s great-nephew George Elliott Clarke’s CBC Television movie, One Heart Broken Into Song.
"It's my great pleasure to contribute to this celebration of a Canadian musical pioneer, for whom wider name-recognition is long overdue, as we honour her place, her voice and her legacy as a groundbreaking force on the world's concert stage," says Brueggergosman-Lee.
Clarke was instrumental in the celebration’s conception, collaborating with students and faculty, and writing the plaque copy. Much thoughtful and reflective work, on the part of students, faculty, school leadership and community members went into the planning. The initiative was first announced to students at Senior and Middle School Assembly during Black History Month in February 2021, by English faculty member Jill Strimas.
As part of that month’s proceedings Clarke, Strimas’ former professor, introduced White’s music to students and explained why we celebrate Black History Month. He also moderated a brainstorming session for students in preparation for the ceremony, offering direction as the school thinks about our language, communications and curriculum around White. Questions included the following: What does it mean to achieve and represent excellence in the arts? What does it mean to be avant garde in art and progressive in social justice? Clarke also noted White’s role in heightening the respect due to folk songs, despite her focus on spirituals, and reflected on the intersections between art and a struggle for justice and equity.
“The integrated planning that has gone on for months to realize this event and the important connected curricular learning was evident in the breadth of performances and community voices honoured in the celebration,” says Deputy Principal Amanda Kennedy. “I loved George Elliott Clarke's remarks, and especially his emphasis on the need for the arts to act as a powerful, uplifting force in these challenging times.”
Sheila White, Portia’s White’s niece, spoke movingly about how her parents, an inter-racial couple about whom she is currently writing a book, were, coincidentally, first given lodging in Toronto at 1 Elm Avenue in 1947, then a sublet, four-room flat in a privately owned apartment building, acquired by Branksome Hall several years later.
“Having known Portia personally, I imagined what she would want me to tell today’s students, given this opportunity, [is]: ‘Follow your dream,’” she said. “‘Trust your talent and intuition. Do the persistent, hard work. Plow through impediments and great things will follow.’” She also gave a posthumous thank you to former principal, Edith Read, for “helping my aunt’s career, from discovering her in Halifax and paving the way for her professional concertizing, to retaining Portia as a teacher on faculty after her retirement from the stage. What an incredible school builder, administrator, educator, visionary and leader you had in Miss Read,” she told the Branksome community gathered and watching via livestream.
Other highlights of the ceremony included student-performed music, dance and poetry, and a show-closing musical contribution from alum Elizaveta Kozlova’15, a New York-based soprana.
“Representation matters,” said Strimas. “Symbols matter, and who is celebrated in a space matters; the images we are surrounded by, matter. Portia White walked these halls. Black excellence has existed, and continues to exist, in this space. By surfacing and celebrating Portia White’s story at Branksome Hall, we commit to finding new ways to foster, evolve and recognize Black excellence in our community.”
Nejat Alhussan’21, former co-head of the Black Student Union, who also shared some words at the ceremony via Zoom, was acknowledged by Strimas as “a brave and instrumental leader in helping the community better understand how to foster and celebrate Black excellence.”
“This is an important moment, with our ongoing strategic focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, to showcase the significance Branksome Hall and Principal Edith Read played in Portia White’s life and career,” says Principal Karen Jurjevich, “while we study our history and celebrate Black excellence within the student curriculum and broader community.”
Read more about Portia White, the plaque in its entirety and the contributors to the ceremony here