A Toronto teen was booted off a popular dance show in 1959 for dancing with a white girl.
To a few irate viewers of WGR’s Dance Party, two Toronto teenagers had travelled down the QEW to commit an offensive act live on Buffalo television. The sight of a black boy and white girl dancing together on an early Saturday afternoon in May 1959 was too much to handle. Rather than ignore the complainants, host Pat Fagan alleviated their concerns. The kids from up north should have known better—as he later suggested, they should have followed the old adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
It began with the best of intentions. Two members of Malvern Collegiate’s student council, Don Schrank and Margo Taylor, felt most of the school’s social events were geared toward the upper grades. With no help from the school’s administration, they organized a bus trip for 46 students, mostly juniors, to appear on Dance Party on May 23, 1959. Among the participants was 15-year-old Clayton Johnston, who played trumpet in the school band and had won several track trophies. According to the Globe and Mail, Clayton and his sister Carol were the only black students at Malvern at the time.
When the “spotlight dance” segment arrived, Clayton paired off with another 15-year-old, Patty Banks. Fagan estimated up to eight callers complained about the interracial pair. He approached Schrank’s mother Muriel, who was chaperoning the kids, to do something about Johnston and Banks. He suggested that it “would be a good idea” if Clayton wasn’t on camera.
Mrs. Schrank was flabbergasted.
Such calls reflected recent racial tensions in Buffalo. Black migration into the city grew following the Second World War, and was accompanied by white flight into the suburbs during the 1950s. Areas they settled into, such as the Ellicott District east of downtown, were subjected to urban renewal plans. An interracial riot among Buffalo teens at Crystal Beach amusement park near Fort Erie in 1956 provided plenty of fuel for the fears of anxious whites. “In the midst of a growing civil rights movement and rising rates of juvenile delinquency,” historian Virginia Wolcott notes in her book Race, Riots and Roller Coasters, “community elites deemed that interracial subculture subversive. To them the Crystal Beach riot suggested that integration was not merely subversive but potentially destructive.” Those fears weren’t alleviated by the rise of rock n’ roll—popular white WKBW DJ George “Hound Dog” Lorenz built a following promoting black acts to mixed audiences, and broadcast live from black clubs.
After receiving the news, Clayton left the studio. The Star noted that he walked for a mile in the rain to “cool off” before returning to WGR to watch the rest of the show in the lounge with a station employee. The other kids were stunned, though it took a while to realize what had happened. “Hardly anyone knew about it until the program was three-quarters over,” Valerie Taw told the Star. “If we had known earlier, drastic measures would have been taken.”
Clayton’s parents watched him and Banks dance back in Toronto, and noticed something was amiss. “Then we didn’t see him again and we thought something like this had happened,” his father Leonard told the Globe and Mail. “Over there they don’t seem to realize that they have a responsibility to allow mixed dancing even if a few of their listeners to call. Only a crackpot would complain.” Banks’s mother called it a “very unfortunate incident” and noted to the press how upset her daughter was.
Fagan, who had hosted the show for two years, claimed that this was the first time such an incident had occurred, and that it had been handled satisfactorily. The publicity which ensued in the Toronto press (Buffalo’s major dailies, the Courier Express and the News, apparently didn’t make a peep) was “making a mountain out of a molehill.” He indicated that while Torontonians were more liberal-minded that Buffalonians, the fact was that “Negroes dance with Negroes and whites dance with whites.” Fagan mentioned that “as a matter of fact, I am going into the coloured section of Buffalo next week where I am to be honoured at a Pat Fagan night by members of the Boys’ Club of the Urban League.” Station general manager Van Buren DeVries didn’t plan any further action, even though he believed Fagan showed poor judgement by heeding the complaints—the station didn’t have a policy against interracial dancing, so the calls should have been ignored.
Back in Toronto, the Monday edition of the Star published an editorial titled “Jim Crow With a Beat,” which speculated how the fiasco would affect Clayton:
Amid innocent teenage fun, his childhood world exploded. The boy became a man. He knew the searing touch of racial discrimination; the impotent anger of a young man who, unjustly and for no logical reason, has been shamed publicly because of his colour, told that he belongs to a caste of untouchables. It is too much to expect that a boy of 15 will escape without scars from this injustice. Certainly his days of wide-eyed innocence are over. In future, under the surface of campus camaraderie, Clayton Johnston would be superhuman if suspicion did not whisper sometimes: What do they really think? That is the fearsome thing about racial discrimination: It breaks down love and trust among human beings, suspends veils of suspicion between us which prevent us from knowing one another.
The Telegram’s editorial (“Positive Good Will Needed”) criticized WGR for yielding so quickly to blatant prejudice. But it also harped on the other students for not showing solidarity by walking out of the studio after the incident. “To have demonstrated an indissoluble alliance at such a time,” it noted, “would have shown up intolerance for the puny and cowardly thing it is.”
Youths interviewed for CBC Radio’s Teen Tempo show felt that while it was easy in hindsight to say they would gone the noble route, they probably would have just carried on as the Malvern students did. Yet, as host Doug Maxwell noted, “To say the high school population of Toronto is upset is putting it mildly.” Asked about her first reaction, a female guest said “There goes some more prejudiced, bigoted old women complaining about something that they might have just happened to glimpse on their television and immediately pick up their phone and scream into it that they can’t stand seeing this type of thing.” Another girl felt a similar situation was possible here, as she had witnessed adults demand black and white teens separate at social functions.
Leonard Johnston didn’t stay quiet. A longtime community activist and active member of the Toronto CPR Section of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, he asked them to protest WGR’s actions. Local Brotherhood president Stanley Grizzle said the matter would be taken up with union leadership, and also intended to bring it up at the city’s labour committee for human rights. Grizzle, who was in the midst of the provincial election campaign as the CCF candidate for York East (and the first black candidate to seek a seat at Queen’s Park), observed that “we often wondered why we failed to see integrated dancing on the program. Many times my two teenage daughters discussed this. Now we know why.” Also supporting the Johnstons was Beaches MPP William Collings, who indicated he would talk to the labour ministry to investigate the incident. As the provincial liquor commissioner, Collings also vowed to speak to booze purveyors who advertised on WGR.
The Johnston family’s phone rang off the hook with calls of support from friends and neighbours. “Everybody is on our side,” Leonard told the Globe and Mail. “The parents of the children Clayton was with say they are sorry the incident happened and many plan to write letters to the station.” Clayton’s peers at Malvern sent a petition to WGR. As letters flooded the station, DeVries hinted he might write an apology letter to Clayton once he’d fully heard both sides of the story—the local white press still wasn’t covering the story, and he only had Fagan’s word. He felt the incident was unfortunate and hoped Clayton wasn’t hurt.
Reverend James Hemphill, president of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP, sent a letter to Buffalo mayor Frank Sedita which declared “This is a slap in the face for democracy, not only in the city of Buffalo but for the whole nation because this is an incident involving two countries.” Hemphill suggested that the city’s black residents were no better off than those living in the Deep South. The letter was not acknowledged by the mayor’s office, nor did the local white papers agree to print it.
The city’s black paper, the Buffalo Criterion, published it, along with letters expressing outrage. “It is far more desirable to have interracial couples dancing publicly in a wholesome chaperoned situation,” wrote Lydia W. Evans and Harriette H. Everette, “than to see numbers of white teen-age girls seeking out Negro men in the Negro neighbourhoods; and conversely, to see white men obtrusively forcing their attentions on Negro girls at the various night spots as well as on the streets.” Letters also filled Toronto’s dailies, all of which condemned WGR and discrimination—one writer went as far as calling segregation “the same problem which is rushing us toward the nightmare of a third world war.”
While stories about the incident made into the black press and prominent American papers, like the New York Times, Toronto papers over the next week were filled with editorials and wire stories about segregation elsewhere south of the border. Some offered hope, such as the ejection of three segregationist school board members during a recall election in Little Rock, Arkansas, who were supported by Governor Orval Faubus (whose efforts to hold back progress inspired the release later that year of Charles Mingus’s jazz classic “Fables of Faubus”). Others played into fears about interracial mixing, such as Alabama state senator E.O. Eddins’s call to ban the children’s book The Rabbits’ Wedding because it depicted the nuptials of black and white bunnies. ”If we are not careful,” Sally Furlong wrote in a letter to the Telegram, “a black and white kitten will soon find difficulty in finding a home because of its doubtful ancestry!”
On June 1, the Johnstons received an apology from DeVries:
In connection with the incident of last Saturday on WGR-TV I have been informed of, and have read, certain statements made by one of our employees that are not in keeping with this station’s policy. I personally regret the hasty action on the part of this individual and want you to know that the action he took was on his own initiative and did not reflect the policy of management. We indeed regret this matter and you have our apology for any embarrassment caused by this treatment.
Leonard accepted the apology on behalf of his son and “all Canadians who believe in democracy.” While New York governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered further investigation, Leonard rejected suggestions he sue WGR. “As far as an international situation is concerned, I don’t want my son in the middle of it.”
Pat Fagan continued to work for WGR (which became WGRZ in 1983) in a variety of posts, including anchoring the 11 o’clock news. He moved on to New York City in 1968, working in the news divisions at ABC and NBC.
Stanley Grizzle finished a respectable third in York East in the 1959 provincial election, earning just over 9,000 votes in Ontario’s largest riding. He was appointed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board the following year. In 1978 he became the first black citizenship judge. Among the many honours Grizzle, who turns 98 this year, has received is a park bearing his name across from Main Street station. Among his children is Nerene Virgin, best known for playing Jodie on Today’s Special.
During the years he worked as a railway porter, Leonard Johnston set aside $16 a week toward his dream of opening a bookstore which illuminated black culture. In 1968, he and his wife Gwendolyn launched Third World Books and Crafts, which thrived for over 30 years as an intellectual centre within the community. The store faced its share of bigots—during its early years, windows were defaced with swastika graffiti. Discussing racism in a 1970 interview with the Globe and Mail, he felt Canada wasn’t much different from the United States.
The only difference is in degree and percentage. If there were more blacks here it would be the same. America’s racism is raw, it’s out front. Here, it’s covered up. Sure, there’s peace and tranquility here, there’s very little in the way of discrimination. But the situation here now is like pre-war Germany, where the Jews thought they were Germans. They weren’t, and we’re not Canadians. If a depression comes, we’ll be niggers again.
Additional material from Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters by Victoria W. Wolcott (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); the May 25, 1959, May 26, 1959, June 2, 1959, and November 7, 1970 editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 25, 1959, May 28, 1959, June 2, 1959 and June 4, 1959 editions of the Toronto Star; and the May 25, 1959, May 26, 1959, and June 2, 1959 editions of the Telegram.
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