How activists fought racist restaurateurs in southwestern Ontario

In the early 1950s, most restaurants in Dresden refused to serve Black people. So activists pushed back, taking their cause to court — and changing Ontario history
By Genelle Levy - Published on Jul 20, 2021
Lyle Talbot, Louis Hall, and Philip Shad were all refused service at Dresden restaurants. (September 28, 1954, edition of the Toronto Daily Star)

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On a crisp October day in 1954, Ruth Lor Malloy and Bromley Armstrong decided to get a bite to eat. They grabbed a booth at Kay’s Café, a classic diner in the small southwestern town of Dresden. They sat and waited. Half an hour went by as Malloy and Armstrong patiently sat waiting for service that they would not be offered. 

Malloy was a journalist-turned-racial-justice-activist and young woman of Chinese descent, and Armstrong was a Black community organizer, and the restaurant they had walked into did not serve non-white people, particularly Black people. The 1944 Ontario Racial Discrimination Act and the 1954 Fair Accommodations Act had made racial discrimination illegal in Ontario, but racism remained rampant in Dresden, a sleepy town two hours outside of Windsor — according to the September 28, 1954, edition of the Toronto Daily Star, three of the four area restaurants wouldn’t serve Black customers, and “three of the four barbers, too, are ‘non-servers.’” Malloy and Armstrong’s arrival at Kay’s Café was just part of a strategy to challenge racism within Ontario’s small businesses — a strategy initially championed by a young veteran named Hugh Burnett. 

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black and white photo of a seated woman and standing man
Clipping from the October 30, 1954,edition of the Toronto Telegram. (Toronto Telegram/Postmedia
Network/archives.gov.on.ca)

Burnett grew up in Dresden. A young Black man, he was part of the historical Black community that had settled in Dresden throughout the late 19th century. A wave of American slaves had escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which made it legal to recapture Black people who had already gained their freedom in the northeastern parts of the U.S. 

According to the Ontario Heritage Trust, Burnett and his family were among the 500 Black people who made their home in Dresden in what became known as the Dawn Settlement. Made up of mostly farmers, bricklayers, and sawmill workers, it helped establish Black Canadians as important contributors to Ontario’s economy. Burnett worked on his family’s farm until the age of 24, when he enlisted in the army during World War II. 

After fighting in World War II, Burnett returned to Dresden, in 1943, and became a carpenter. Despite being a veteran, he was turned away from Kay’s Café. Burnett was furious that, although he had fought for people’s freedom during the war, he was not guaranteed freedom in his own country — so he set his mind to putting an end to this. 

As John Cooper explains in Season of Rage: Hugh Burnett and the Struggle for Civil Rights, Burnett gathered uncles and family friends to establish the National Unity Association with the aim of promoting racial equality. In 1948, Burnett launched a lawsuit against Morley McKay, owner of Kay’s Café, but he later withdrew it, given the high risk of losing. Burnett knew that Black people wouldn’t be able to win this fight alone. So the NUA partnered with the Jewish Labour Committee and the Committee on Group Relations. Alongside activists from 62 organizations, the three organizations marched down to Premier Leslie Frost’s office. Meanwhile, in Dresden, the town council voted four to one to reject a non-discrimination bylaw.

Burnett knew he was losing the fight, so he brought in Donna Hill. Hill, a white woman, was the secretary of the Toronto and District Joint Labour Committee to Combat Racial Intolerance. Hill was also the wife of Daniel G. Hill, a Black sociologist who would eventually go on to become the first full-time director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. 

Throughout the early 1950s, the National Unity Association sent Black people to conduct sit-ins at Kay’s Café and Emerson’s Soda Bar Restaurant. They would simply show up and wait to be served. A Black mailman and his family were turned away, and so were two couples on a double date. Finally, it was decided that the best way to test the treatment of restaurant patrons would be to bring in outsiders. 

That’s when Hill and Burnett decided to enlist Malloy, who was trained in pacifist methods of conflict resolution. Malloy was heavily invested in the fight for civil rights, having grown up as a Chinese Canadian at a time when Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act — which banned Chinese people from immigrating to Canada — was in effect. (The act, introduced in 1923, was repealed in 1947.)

black and white photos: left, a man and a woman; right, three men
Matthew and Anne Emerson (right) and Morley McKay owned Dresden restaurants that refused to serve Black people. (September 28, 1954, edition of the Toronto Daily Star)

Malloy’s seasoned activism would prove to be a hugely beneficial to the NUA and its cause. She called on Armstrong, who had worked with her on fighting discriminatory landlords, to join the efforts against Kay’s Café’s discriminatory practices, and the two continued to show up at the diner, often bringing the press with them. The publicity worked: the November 2, 1954, edition of the Star reported that the province’s labour minister, Charley Daley, was planning to prosecute the restaurant under the new Fair Accommodation Practices Act: “We intend to eliminate discrimination in this province,” he said.

Owners Morley McKay, Anne Emerson, and Matthew Emerson didn’t back down, and, as Cooper explains, the resulting court proceedings dragged on. McKay’s and the Emersons’ lawyers argued that the act was unworkable because, if the restaurateurs served Black people, they would lose white customers. McKay and the Emersons were initially found guilty: the judge convicted them of breaking anti-discrimination law. However, McKay and the Emersons appealed and were assigned another judge, who, according to the September 17, 1955, edition of the Star, as a private citizen had “fought in the nation’s highest court to have upheld racial covenants barring Jewish and colored persons from being able to buy certain properties.” That judge ruled that there was no clear evidence of racial discrimination and that service to the Black people had been postponed for personal reasons. 

The Star reports that Frost “expressed some concern over the fact the convictions were set aside because it was not brought out at the trial the restaurant owners had not come right out and said service was refused because of color,” saying, “Surely it isn’t necessary a bank robber must announce he is going to hold up a bank before he is convicted of bank robbery.”

While the Emersons decided to give up the fight, McKay remained steadfast. 

The NUA came up with a new strategy. Rather than send in racial minorities whom it knew

a man in glasses
Hugh Burnett established the National Unity Association. (September 28, 1954, edition of the Toronto Daily Star)

wouldn’t be served, it decided to work with another white ally: Robert Van Alstyne, a university student who was part of the same Student Christian Movement as Malloy. In 1955, he accompanied two Black university students, Jake Alleyne and Percy Bruce, to Kay’s Café. However, he sat separately from the Black students. Van Alstyne took detailed notes, recording how both parties were treated: he was served; the Black students were not. 

This time, Van Alstyne and the NUA were able to argue that McKay was contravening the 1954 Fair Accommodations Act. McKay was convicted with two counts. In 1956, he served a group from the National Unity Association — his first Black customers. 

Although Burnett won the fight, his reputation in Dresden never recovered. After losing carpentry clients angry at him because of the court decision, he eventually moved to London. Following the court proceedings, Burnett had told the London Free Press that his movement’s focus wasn’t on punitive action: “Our ultimate aim is not causing the shop owners to pay fines but to secure fair treatment for our group,” he said. 

Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society, says that Burnett’s story illustrates the challenges Black Canadians faced at a particular time in history and how they took action. “Hugh Burnett’s story exemplifies the ways Black Canadians have played a role in advocating for changes in legislation that we benefit from today — changes that were not based on the benevolence of a white-dominant government, but because of ongoing advocacy from people like Hugh Burnett,” says Henry. 

Ultimately, Burnett’s on-the-ground activism against a particular form of Canadian discrimination had a tremendous impact, notes Barrington Walker, a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University: “It’s one of the most stark examples we have in Canadian history of a community being confronted with its history of racism in Canada.” 

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