Portia May White, a gifted singer and teacher, was the first Black Canadian concert singer to
gain international renown. Born in Truro, Nova Scotia, Portia White was the third child in a
family of 13 children. Her father’s parents had been enslaved in the United States. Her mother
was a descendant of Black Loyalists who fled to Nova Scotia after serving on the side of the
British in the American Revolutionary War.
Under her mother’s tutelage, White began singing in church as a youngster. White’s mother was
a very talented musician and soloist, very active and highly respected as a church music leader.
Early on, White set her sights on a career in singing, attending regular voice training.
In 1929, White attended Dalhousie University, graduating and then teaching at schools in Black
communities, such as Africville and Lucasville. She took singing lessons at the Halifax
Conservatory. She sang at church on radio, and performed at the Nova Scotia Music Festival,
winning the Helen Campbell Kennedy Cup four times. The Halifax Ladies’ Musical Club gave
White a scholarship to train with Ernesto Vinci at the Halifax Conservatory of Music in 1939.
Vinci guided White to sing as a contralto, the lowest, and quite rare, female voice type.
White’s life changed course when an influential Torontonian, Edith Read, visited Halifax in
1941, and heard White sing. Read soon arranged White’s debut performance at Toronto’s Eaton
Auditorium, a highly popular venue, with acoustics comparable to those of New York City’s

Carnegie Hall. White received rave reviews from critics, who described her voice as “…a gift
from heaven,” filled with “…pungent expression.”
White left her teaching job and embarked on a series of concert engagements across Canada. She
then performed in New York City’s Town Hall concert venue, and a critic writing for the
New York Times called her performance “remarkable.”
Success literally overtook the young woman’s life. Now age 30, she had worked long and hard to
develop her talent and earn distinction on the world stage, and her time had come. Over the
years, she sang before many admiring audiences, including at a United Nations Rally for Victory
in Toronto, and the Fifth Annual American Negro Music Festival in Detroit, Chicago and
St. Louis. She signed with Columbia Concerts and began appearing across North America.
In 1946, White undertook a concert tour of Central and South America. She began experiencing
difficulties with her voice. In 1948, she performed in Switzerland and France, but soon had to
retire from public performance.
In 1952, White settled in Toronto, where she taught voice at a girls’ school and privately to such
esteemed individuals as Dinah Christie, Lorne Greene and Robert Goulet. During the 1950s and
1960s, she gave a very few performances, including singing for Queen Elizabeth II and
Prince Philip in Charlottetown in 1964. White sang publicly for the last time, in Ottawa in 1967.
White died in February 1968. Since her passing, she has been honoured in many ways over the
years. In 1995, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada named her a person of
national historic significance. In 1999, Canada Post issued a stamp in her honour. Each year, the
Nova Scotia Arts Council awards the Portia White Prize to an outstanding Nova Scotian in the
arts, and the Nova Scotia Talent Trust presents the Portia White Scholarship Award to
exceptional vocalists. At the East Coast Music Awards in 2007, White was posthumously
honoured with the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2016, White was
among the women the Bank of Canada considered featuring on a new $10 banknote (the honour
went to fellow Nova Scotian Viola Desmond).
Through her talent, hard work and determination, White proved that dreams really can come
true. As she once said: “I had this dream – I was always bowing in my dreams, and singing
before people…”
(Sources: “100 Canadian Heroines” by Merna Forster; The Canadian Encyclopedia)