“Where have you been?”
“Why no blogs?”
I was obsessed with finishing a brief bio of my daddy. Some Toronto politicians want to honor Roy Wilfrid “Chic” Johnston for being Toronto’s first Black school trustee. They will honor him by naming a laneway after him. I did not think that a brief bio of Dad would be such a fight to write. It was. At times I was blocked. At times I was up all night working on it. I could not focus on any other writing. I had to get Dad’s bio done. What a relief when I finally finished it! I got my life back.
What is ironic about them honoring Dad for being the first Black school trustee is that Dad never had a Black-Lives-Matter philosophy. When people mentioned that he was the first Black school trustee, Dad would correct them and say, “I’m a school trustee.”
Dad always told us, “Think of yourself as a human being first and a Negro second. You’re a human being and no different than anyone else.”
Ladies and Gentlemen:
ROY WILFRID “Chic” JOHNSTON
(June 18,1923 – August 29,2005)
Roy Wilfrid Johnston was the youngest of eight children. He was born, in Toronto, on June 18, 1923. His parents were Ferdinand Johnston and Christine Johnston (née Cooper). They came to Toronto from Jamaica in 1910 (Christine) and 1912(?)Ferdinand.
They had eight children, but only five survived childhood. The five who survived were Doris, Harold, Leonard, Hubert, and Roy. (Leonard, along with his wife Gwendolyn, started Third World Books and Crafts, the first store of its kind in North America.)
The Nickname, “Chic”:
In 1928, when Roy was five years old, his mother gave him the chicken’s feet from a chicken she had killed for dinner. Back then, people would buy a chicken live and then take it home and kill it. Children would play with the chicken’s feet.
It was one of his brothers’ turn to have the chicken’s feet. Because Roy was sick, his mother gave the feet to him. His brothers were jealous and angry. They started calling Roy, “Chicken!” “Chicken!” “Chicken!” The name stuck. It was shortened to “Chic” as Roy got older.
Roy went to Western Technical-Commercial School. He had a lot of respect for his machine-shop teacher, Mr. Slade.
Mr. Slade received calls from various Toronto companies looking to hire students from the school. Every time Mr. Slade sent out Roy with some white students, the white students would get hired, and Roy would not. This bothered Mr. Slade, and he knew how discouraging it was for Roy. To prevent further discouragement for Roy, Mr. Slade decided to let the companies know in advance that one of the students was “coloured.”
Mr. Alex Gray, who owned Gray Tools, called for some workers. Mr. Slade asked whether it was okay to send a “coloured” student with the other students. Mr. Gray said, “I don’t care. If he can do the job, then he’s got the job.”
Mr. Gray was ahead of his time in 1939. He hired women, minorities, handicapped, etc. He did not care. “If they can do the job, then they got the job” was his attitude.
Roy started working for Gray Tools in 1939 as a tool and die maker.
A short time after Roy started at Gray Tools, another employee—let’s call him John—asked Roy to grind something. While Roy was grinding the item, John said, “Gee, I’ve never worked with a nigger before.” Roy punched John and fought with John briefly before other employees separated them. Mr. Gray called both to his office. Roy thought that Mr. Gray was going to fire him.
Mr. Gray told John, “As long as my name is on the sign on this building, I’ll determine who works here. And since your name is not on the sign, you have no right to make any comments about my employees.”
Mr. Gray told Roy to go back to work. Later, Mr. Gray came to Roy’s workstation and told Roy, “If anyone ever calls you a name again, then take it outside. I’m responsible for what happens in the building.”
What a relief for Roy! He did not get fired. Roy always felt gratitude and loyalty to Mr. Gray for hiring him in the first place, and then not firing him after a fight over the color of his skin.
Palais Royale Protest:
The Palais Royale is a dance hall in Toronto. Sometimes Black musicians such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie would play there. But the Palais Royal would not allow Black people to see them.
In 1942, Roy, Wilson Brooks, and Douglas Salmon organized a protest over the Palais Royale’s discriminatory admission policy. The policy was eventually changed.
Interesting to note, Wilson Brooks became the first Black school principal in Toronto; Douglas Salmon became the first Black surgeon in Toronto; Roy Johnston became Toronto’s first Black school trustee.
World War II:
Roy left Gray Tools in 1942 and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He flew spy missions overseas, taking pictures of the German soldiers’ positions for the Artillery. His plane had a camera mounted on the floor under the cockpit. He could take photos by using his foot to press a button on the cockpit’s floor.
Roy’s commanding officer refused to send Roy on several missions where there was a good chance of capture. The Germans would not take Black soldiers as prisoners and shot them.
Roy was upset that he was getting special treatment because of his skin color. He had volunteered to fight and was willing to die for his country. But he had to follow orders and was excluded from missions when there was a high risk of being captured.
After World War II:
Roy returned to Gray Tools after the war in 1945. He worked there until his retirement in 1988. From 1970 until his retirement, he was promoted to Foreman of the Tool Room.
On September 6, 1947, Roy married Carrie Minnie Wright (December 25, 1922 – November 9, 2002). They raised four children and remained married until she died in 2002.
Community Involvement and School Trustee:
Roy was always active in the community, especially with activities involving his children. He volunteered for various projects at Davenport-Perth United Church. His involvement in the community outside the church projects led to him being acclaimed as a school trustee in Toronto’s Ward 3. One of the two school trustees died, and Roy was given the position by acclamation. He ran for the position in subsequent elections and won. He served as a school trustee from 1970 until 1976.
Roy was feeling the pressure of having two jobs. Being a foreman at Gray Tools demanded more of his time. In 1976, Roy decided not to run again for school trustee. That way, he could devote all his energy to his work at Gray Tools.
After he retired from Gray Tools in 1988, Roy occasionally went back to Gray’s to work as a consultant. This involved him going into Gray Tools one or two days a week. Eventually, the consulting work stopped. Roy was free to devote his time to enjoying his retirement and his grandchildren.