Lincoln Alexander, a man of humble birth who fought racism to become a lawyer, a politician and Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, died in hospital this morning at age at 90. Alexander is survived by his wife Marni, his son Keith and his extended family. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Discrimination isn’t good for anybody – the abusers or the victims – but Lincoln Alexander was one of those stalwart souls who could turn rejections and despicable slurs into a personal challenge to excel. As a boy he learned to “walk tall,” as a young man he chose a career where he could be self-employed, as a law student he spoke out when a dean casually used the racist example of “a nigger in the woodpile” to make a point in class, and when mainstream law firms ignored him, he joined forces with another member of a minority to make his independent way.
And always he followed his mother’s advice about the advantages of education. Consequently, this son of a hotel maid and a railway porter, became the first member of his family to go to university, the first black Member of Parliament, the first black federal Cabinet Minister, the first black Chair of the Worker’s Compensation Board, the first black Lieutenant-Governor, and the first person to serve five terms as Chancellor of the University of Guelph.
Among the many honors bestowed on him for a life of public service – including memberships in the Orders of Canada and Ontario – there was a certain irony in naming the motorway across Hamilton Mountain the Lincoln Alexander Parkway, for he never learned to drive and was actually afraid of traffic. He always sat “in the back, real low so I can’t see what’s going on,” as he cheerfully admitted. Nevertheless, being unable to drive never stopped Alexander from telling his late wife Yvonne wife how to do it, or so his son Keith liked to joke.
Lincoln (Linc) MacCauley Alexander was born Jan. 21, 1922 on Draper Street in Toronto, a block from where The Globe and Mail now stands at Front Street and Spadina Avenue. He was the elder of two sons of Mae Rose (nee Royale), a maid from Jamaica, and Lincoln MacCauley Alexander Sr., a six-foot-four-inch carpenter from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Besides his younger brother Hughie, born in 1924, he had an older half- brother, Ridley “Bunny” Wright, born to his mother in 1920, before she and Lincoln Sr. married He never accepted this child and wouldn’t let him in the family house.
The Alexanders, who had come separately from the West Indies, met in Canada, where Alexander worked as a porter on the Canadian Pacific Railway on the Toronto to Vancouver run. His job took him away from his family for days on end, but it was steady and stable employment, especially during the Depression.
“Blacks at that time made up a sliver-thin portion of the city’s population, and racial prejudice abounded,” Alexander wrote in his 2006 memoir, Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy. When the family moved to the east end of Toronto, Alexander can remember knowing only three Black families, a huge contrast with the multicultural city of today. “The scene in Toronto at that time wasn’t violent, though you had to know your place and govern yourself accordingly.”
He was the only Black child in his kindergarten class at Earl Grey Public School, a circumstance that pretty well continued through high school and university, but he writes in his memoir that he “never raced home from school and cried.” Instead, he was determined to earn the respect of his classmates, often by fighting. These “entanglements” taught “me to always walk tall, and with a certain bearing, so people knew I meant business.”
The family was religious, and much of their social life centred on their regular attendance at a Baptist church in downtown Toronto. His father, a stern disciplinarian, wanted his son to play the piano (hoping he would become the next Duke Ellington), but the boy preferred track and field, soccer, hockey, softball and even boxing, although he never learned to swim. Tall, skinny and with big feet, he was too gangly and uncoordinated to be a natural athlete.
From his mother he learned to value education and usually ranked in the top ten of his class both at elementary and Riverdale Collegiate when he went to high school. From his father, who would pile his tips on the bedroom dresser, he learned the importance of getting along with people, a trait that the older Alexander took to extremes. A philanderer, he had sexual liaisons at many stops along the train route across the country. That particular jig was up when he infected his wife with a sexually transmitted disease, probably syphilis, when Linc was about 15.