Dresden and Racial Discrimination

By the 1940s, few places in Canada were as bitterly divided along racial lines as Dresden, Ontario. A small city with a substantial black population, Dresden was notorious for racial discrimination. Blacks could not eat in its three restaurants or get a haircut at its four barbershops and its beauty parlour. They were banned from all but one of its pool halls, were denied entry to the Canadian Legion except at stag parties, and did not attend the white church. Sidney Katz, who visited Dresden in October 1949 for Maclean’s magazine, later wrote that “the chances of 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.” Ironically, Dresden’s primary tourist attraction was Uncle Tom’s grave, as the city had once served as a terminus for an underground railway that helped black slaves escape the United States. In a 1949 municipal referendum, local citizens voted by a margin of five to one against a proposed bylaw banning discrimination (the only vote of its kind in Canadian history). The referendum question read, “Do you approve of the Council passing a by-law licensing restaurants in Dresden and restraining the owner or owners from refusing service regardless of race, color or creed?”

Morley McKay, the owner of Kay’s Café, was especially infamous in Dresden. A burly black-haired Scot with a short temper, McKay refused to serve blacks at his establishment, so the Jewish Labour Committee (JLC) arranged several “tests” of Kay’s Café. Two black volunteers entered it, McKay refused to serve them, and the JLC documented the episode and shared it with the media and politicians. The strategy infuriated McKay, who wielded a large meat cleaver at one point and appeared to have difficulty in controlling his temper. When he was interviewed by Katz, McKay said, “Do you know that for three days after I get raging mad every time I see a Negro. Maybe it’s like an animal who’s had a smell of blood.” Every time Dresden was mentioned in newspaper headlines, politicians’ stance that anti-discrimination legislation was unnecessary became increasingly difficult to maintain. Dresden provided Sid Blum, secretary for the Toronto branch of the JLC, with the ammunition he desperately needed to challenge popular perceptions about prejudice in Ontario.

  • Bagnall, John C. “The Ontario Conservatives and the Development of Anti-Discrimination Policy.” Master’s thesis, Queen’s University, 1984.
  • Katz, Sidney. “Jim Crow Lives in Dresden.” Maclean’s, 1 November 1949.
  • Lambertson, Ross. “The Dresden Story: Racism, Human Rights, and the Jewish Labour Committee of Canada.” Labour/Le travail 47 (2001): 43-82.
  • Walker, James. “The ‘Jewish Phase’ in the Movement for Racial Equality in Canada.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 34, 1 (2002): 1-29.

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