Calgary’s unknown civil rights champion
Charles Daniels refused to give up his seat.
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“We Want No Dark Spots in Alberta.”
“Petition Protesting Negro Immigration Numerously Signed.”
These are just a few of the headlines that accompanied the first major wave of Black settlers to Alberta in early 1900s. This wave, mostly farmers from the United States, came to Alberta due to advertisements that encouraged immigrants to settle here.
However, the province wasn’t expecting Black people. So politicians from all levels of government rallied to oppose Black immigration. Edmonton’s city council, for example, passed a resolution calling for the limitation of Black settlers. Anti-Black efforts like these were successful and ultimately led the federal government to effectively ban Black immigration.
Conditions for Black Albertans were extremely difficult. Segregation was common, with Black people being rejected from bars, swimming pools, theatres, and even hospitals. Despite this, Black Albertans persevered and fought against this racial discrimination.
This is a story of one of those Black Albertans. A Calgarian who fought against racial discrimination in the city’s theatre scene 50 years after the end of slavery and 50 years before the March on Washington.
His name is Charles Daniels and it’s time his story was widely known.
A night at the Grand
Charles Daniels worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad as an inspector for porters, one of the few jobs available for Black Canadians. Porters kept trains running smoothly by assisting passengers. However, Black porters were not accepted into the white porters union and eventually had to create their own, called the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters.
When he wasn’t working, Daniels enjoyed theatre and was interested in a performance at the Sherman Grand Theatre of the play King Lear by William Shakespeare. The Grand was in the newly-built Lougheed Block, constructed in 1912, which still stands at the corner of 6 Avenue and 1 Street S.W. The building was owned by Senator James Lougheed, grandfather of future Premier Peter Lougheed .
On February 3, 1914, Daniels arranged to buy two tickets to see King Lear with a friend that evening. He knew from his ticket exactly where he’d be sitting for the performance: seat H3.
However, when he went to the show that night, his ticket was denied and he was directed to sit in the “coloured” section, which was in the balcony, rather than the seat he had purchased.
Daniels refused and protested. He spoke to the manager and was told he was not allowed to sit in the front rows.
The theatre offered him a refund as an alternative. He refused and left.
Soon after, he launched a court case against the theatre arguing that he deserved a seat since he was “sober and well behaved.” He requested $1,000 in damages, or the equivalent of about $20,000 today.
“I might as well tell it. Regarding the coloured people, our audience objects very much.
A risky move
Daniels’s move made headlines all over Alberta. The Bassano News ran this headline: “CALGARY ‘NIGGER’ KICKS UP FUSS — Wants to Attend Theatre With ‘White Folks’ But Management Says No.” The article notes that the reason for his denial was that white people found negroes “offensive” and did not want to sit near them.
Daniels’s action was unique and risky, as lynchings and violence were common towards Black people in North America. In addition, Daniels’s action was decades before the civil rights movement would peak. In fact, in all my research, Daniels’s is the earliest example of a civil rights court case in Western Canada.
It became my personal goal to learn more about Daniels after I found these articles. So I went to the Provincial Archives in Edmonton, where I hoped to find his case file. I was worried since Alberta destroyed court cases from 1920 to 1940. There was no guarantee that his case would still be there. Thankfully, the archivist, Robin Wallace, helped me find microfilm containing dozens of cases.
It was my job to scan through and find Daniels’s case.
After some scanning, I finally came across his case—and was floored by what I found.
The file includes transcripts from two hours of examination for discovery: one hour with Daniels and one hour with William Sherman, the theatre’s proprietor. This provided an unexpected opportunity to hear directly from Daniels himself and learn the more human side of the story—the story beyond the news articles that called him “nigger.”
“The said plaintiff being a coloured person was thereby held up to ridicule by a number of people entering the said theatre.
‘Regardless of creed or colour’
Daniels hired the firm of Barney Collison, a respected lawyer, to represent him. “The theatre is licensed as a public place of amusement and entertainment,” Collison told The Albertan (now the Calgary Sun), “and so long as a man is sober, sane and orderly, he is entitled to be admitted to any part of the house in which he chooses to sit, regardless of creed or colour.”
The theatre knew the case could have a considerable impact on their operations if Daniels won and received his damages.
In an interview with The Albertan, James Leatherby, the Grand’s treasurer, laid out the theatre’s views towards Black people and segregation. The article described the policy this way: “Negroes are not excluded from the theatre provided they take the seats in the section of the house assigned to them.”
At the beginning of his examination for discovery, Sherman said that the theatre removed people who cause trouble, the sort who “turn around and tell their opinions… about the play.” On the surface this seems like a pretty reasonable policy. However, J.J. McDonald, the lawyer representing Daniels, dug deeper.
McDonald asked Sherman if there were any other reasons for refusing someone entry.
At this point Sherman very clearly spelled out his rationale behind denying Black people.
The audience complains
“I might as well tell it,” he said. “Regarding the coloured people, our audience objects very much—and I like their money as well as anyone else’s, and it is not for that I object, but the audience complains. We had coloured people come down in front and anytime they do get in front, say, and sit down… well, we invariably have to exchange 18-20 seats.”
Clearly this policy originated out of the racism white Calgarians held toward Black Calgarians—feelings that would cause someone to not even want to sit beside another human.
Sherman did not see this as a bad thing and even justified it by saying Black patrons would enjoy the balcony seating and that they were “just as good seats.”
McDonald: If you left them in the orchestra the white people are offended?
Sherman: What’s that?
McDonald: If you left them in the orchestra the white people are offended?
McDonald: So you must offend either one or the other?
Sherman: No, this is the first one we know where we have offended because we try without saying anything, we try to keep them apart without saying anything… and not telling them the white people do not want them down there.”
'It would humiliate him'
The final exchange of Sherman's examination for discovery is eye-opening and shows the barriers facing Black Albertans at the time. The exchange is regarding the damages Daniels was requesting, and whether Sherman understood that Daniels was humiliated by what happened at the theatre on that winter night.
Sherman: It would humiliate him, but a man in his position in public life, as he says he is, ought to know what a position I am in. If a man goes to the theatre with his wife and next to his wife he saw a coloured man, his wife would not want to sit there.
McDonald: Yes, but we are going on to something else?
Sherman: Oh, sometimes white people make as big [a] kick as anyone else. Sometimes our friends are not our friends and I am sure we never done anything to humiliate anyone.
“His wife would not want to sit there.” This response was part of a common argument against Black immigration. The argument was that Black men were “sexual beasts” and a danger to white women. You can see this example in an article by Isobel Graham, women's editor of the Grain Growers Guide, about the “negro invasion that is now pouring into the Canadian West.”
“There can scarcely be anyone who is not aware of the atrocities committed by members of these terrible communities," Graham wrote, "the only corresponding punishment for which is the lawless lynching. Already it is reported that three white women in Edmonton and Peace River districts have been victims of these outrages accomplished in peculiarly fiendish abandon. When will the end be?”
This fear was likewise articulated by Dr. Ella Synge, an Edmonton woman who wrote a letter to each level of government protesting Black immigration. This was the headline for an article about her efforts: “WOMAN UTTERS PROTEST AGAINST NEGRO INVASION.”
She is quoted as saying, “I should like to register a protest against the short sighted policy of the government in permitting so large a body of negroes to take up land in Alberta.”
This perspective is important to understand since it shows the barriers facing Black men like Daniels and how they were immediately treated with suspicion.
Suspicion that would lead to them being segregated, when all they wanted to do was see a play.
One newspaper, the Calgary News-Telegram, did come to Daniels’s defence in an editorial headlined “Calgary Resents Race and Colour Distinction.” This is recounted in Donald B. Smith’s 2005 book, The Grand Story.
“This is a free country, and whether a man be black or white, a British subject or an alien, no one has the right to draw the colour or any other line to subject him either to indignity or inconvenience,” wrote the News-Telegram.
Daniels in his own words
A common trend in my research on Alberta’s anti-Black racism is that the person who does the racist act is often extensively quoted and their background told. However, the Black person who resisted often has other people speak for them because their words were not seen as important.
As a result, I can’t stress enough how important Daniel’s examination for discovery is—because we hear about his experience in his own words.
The examination primarily focuses on Daniels’s version of events and his rationale for requesting damages. Daniels recalled, in detail, the events of the day.
On the morning of February 3, Daniels phoned the Grand Sherman asking about the play, which he believed to be Macbeth.
“No, King Lear,” he was told.
“Can I get a couple of seats near the centre of the orchestra, about five or six rows back?” Daniels asked.
“All right, reserve two for me.”
Daniels was on 6 Avenue S.W. at the house of a friend, Andrew Hill, that day, and asked Hill if they could send the neighbour’s boy to fetch the tickets. Daniels gave a $5 bill to the white boy of 11 or 12, who went and picked up the tickets without issue.
If Daniels had gone for the tickets himself, they likely would have immediately swapped his seat to the balcony because he was Black, as was the theatre’s policy.
“Whether a man be black or white… no one has the right to draw the colour or any other line to subject him either to indignity or inconvenience.
‘In what way were you humiliated?’
At the examination, J.C. Brokovski, Sherman’s lawyer, spent considerable time questioning if Daniels was humiliated and if the amount he was requesting was fair.
Brokovski: Well now, how did you figure up this $1,000.00 damages Mr. Daniels?
Daniels: How did I figure up the $1000.00 damages?
Daniels: Well I think the humiliation is worth that amount.
Brokovski: Beg pardon?
Daniels: I think the humiliation is worth that amount.
Brokovski: In what way were you humiliated?
Daniels: I was.
Brokovski: In what way were you humiliated?
Daniels: Because there were a number of men in the Department of C.P.R. (Canadian Pacific Railway) seen me in the lobby at the time, conductors and their crews.
The questioning continued with Brokovski seeming to suggest that the size of Daniels’s friend, Hill, who is described as six feet tall and stout, was relevant. This was most likely meant to suggest that the theatre ticket staff were intimidated by them.
This exact same line of questioning appeared in the Ted King case — a Black Calgarian that sued a motel for refusing him entry. (You can read about that exchange and the importance of the case here.)
In Daniels’s examination, there were some tense moments that indicate that Daniels was not intimidated by the lawyer. The following exchange comes from Brokovski doubting if Daniels was correct on the date of the encounter.
Brokovski: Well, there is a mistake somewhere between you, it is quite clear?
Daniels: Well, that is your privilege to think so, I suppose.
Brokovski: Beg pardon?
Daniels: I say that is your privilege to think so, I suppose.
Brokovski: Well it is not my privilege to think so. It is a question of getting at the facts. It does not make any difference what I think about it, it is a matter of fact.
Daniels: Well, it is a fact so far as the date is correct.
“I think the humiliation is worth that amount.
Daniels wins by default
When the case initially came before the courts neither the defendants nor lawyers for the theatre appeared.
This meant that Daniels won his case by default. His victory was reported in newspapers across Alberta.
But a judge set aside the decision shortly after, giving Sherman another chance to defend himself in the case.
In Daniels's file there is no record of the case going to trial. Edmonton lawyer Avnish Nanda, who reviewed the file after I sent it to him, said it could mean the theatre opted to settle with Daniels out of court.
It’s unclear if Daniels would have won his case at trial. Just eight years later, a Black woman in Edmonton, Lulu Anderson, would lose her case after being denied entry to the Metropolitan Theatre on Jasper Avenue.
Regardless, Daniels’s case showed that Black Calgarians would stand up against racism and injustice. The case also resulted in fallout at the theatre, as Senator Lougheed, reportedly embarrassed by the incident, replaced Sherman a few months later, turning booking over to another theatre magnate.
Not much is known about Daniels’s later life. But his legacy is part of a long tradition of Alberta’s civil rights history and Black Canadians standing up for racial justice.
In fact, his case is one of three known civil rights cases that have gone before the courts in Alberta, along with Lulu Anderson’s and Ted King’s.
Alberta's buried civil rights history
This is a legacy that most Albertans know little about.
On reflection, I can understand why this ignorance exists. Our civil rights history is buried. Primary sources are difficult to find, and we a have a lack of images to showcase this history.
The American civil rights movement is well documented. When you think of American discrimination you probably think of photos showing segregated buses and water fountains, or perhaps photos showing people bravely standing up against injustice.
Now consider Canada. We know that Black people faced segregation in bars, theatres, swimming pools, and even hospitals. We also know that numerous Black Canadians stood up against these injustices.
Yet can you think of any images that show this history?
Finding and publicizing this material will make this history more well known. It should be easily accessible to all. For example, the general public knew nothing almost nothing about Viola Desmond until very recently.
Desmond, a Black Nova Scotian woman, refused to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946. As with Daniels, theatre management tried to move her upstairs. After she refused, Desmond—who was born in 1914, the same year of Daniels’s action—was arrested and jailed.
Desmond’s story became more widely known thanks to public education campaign in the form of a Heritage Minute, educational material for youth, and Desmond’s depiction on our new $10 bill.
Daniels’s case ought to be remembered and commemorated in a similar way.
The Grand is still located prominently in downtown Calgary. However, most who walk by it are unaware that, 104 years ago at that site, a Black Calgarian stood up for his rights.
Today the Grand stands as a reminder of Calgary’s anti-Black racism, along with resistance to that racism. Perhaps it’s time for Daniels to be honoured with a monument at that site.
Who knows? Maybe one day a play will be produced about his story and performed at the very theatre that denied him.