Portia White was raised in Halifax, where she sang in her church choir as a child. She became a teacher and taught in Black communities, such as Africville and Lucasville. In the meantime she took voice lessons and sang on radio broadcasts hosted by her father, a church minister. It was soon clear that she had an extraordinary voice and she won a scholarship at the Halifax Conservatory of Music in 1939. In 1941, White made her singing debut, at age 30, in Toronto. The newspaper reviewer wrote that "she sings spirituals with pungent expression and beauty of utterance." Another wrote that her voice was "a gift from heaven."
Portia White became the first Black Canadian concert singer to win international renown, despite difficulties obtaining bookings because of her race. The high point of her career was a widely acclaimed recital in New York in 1944. White's career was short, however, as she suffered vocal difficulties. She retired from public singing and in 1952 she moved to Toronto to teach voice. She returned to the concert stage occasionally and sang for Queen Elizabeth in Charlottetown, PEI, in 1964.
We have only a few recordings of White's remarkable voice. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald called her "the singer who broke the colour barrier in Canadian classical music." Tributes include a postage stamp in her honour, a monument in her birthplace at Truro, NS, and a film documentary (Think on Me). She died in Toronto in 1968.
An illustrated article devoted to the life and times of acclaimed singer Portia White. From the Our Roots website.
Tree Sculpture of Portia White
A photo of a tree sculpture of singer Portia White. Located at Zion Baptist Church, Truro, Nova Scotia. From the Canada's Historic Places website.
Portia May White
Scroll down to page 13 for a feature on internationally celebrated singer Portia May White. From Parks Canada.
The Life of Portia White
Scroll down to page 63 for a biography of renowned contralto Portia White. From the book What's a black critic to do...? From Google Books.
Portia May White
A photo of the celebrated concert artist Portia May White by photographer Yousef Karsh. From the online exhibit ON THE ROAD NORTH - Black Canada and Journey to Freedom.
A photo and brief reference to singer Portia White. From the website for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Profile of Black Canadian musician Portia White. A Mount Allison University website.
Brief bio of soloist Portia White from the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.