Mrs. Alexander left home and moved, along with her eldest son Bunny, to her sister’s place in Harlem in New York City–after a physical altercation, witnessed by Linc, that left her with a broken eardrum from the force of her husband’s hand hitting her cheek. That taught Linc another lesson: “Never put your wife in the position my dad put my mom in.”
His mother’s flight meant there was nobody to watch over Linc and his younger brother Hughie, then 13, while Alexander was travelling the rails. Luckily, a couple named Sadie and Rupert Downs (parents of Ray Downs, who would become an internationally known jazz pianist) took an interest in the boys and cared for them until Mrs. Alexander could afford to send for one of her sons. She chose Linc, the eldest, leaving Hughie to stay with the Downs family. The brothers grew apart and Hughie eventually moved to Boston where he made a living as a plasterer and, having inherited his father’s wandering eye, married three times.
Moving to Harlem in New York transplanted him from a nearly homogenous white community into a largely black one in which it was possible to find role models who had risen above manual jobs. This “stiffened my resolve to be more than a porter,” he wrote He enrolled in DeWitt Clinton High School (then boys only) in the Bronx, the alma mater of writer James Baldwin, among other notables. He wrote in his memoir that he was the only member of his gang who went to high school and, “given the message about education that had been pounded into my head since I was a young child, the fact those kids didn’t go to school was an eye-opener for me.”
His mother got him a job in the laundry where she worked, but he was fired after two weeks because she refused to show her gratitude by sleeping with the boss. That was another not-so-happy lesson: that life can be unfair and you can lose even though you are not at fault.
He also learned the tough life of the streets in Harlem, and was initiated into smoking, drinking, sex and carrying a switchblade. Partly to protect her son, a resident alien, from being “encouraged” to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces as soon as he turned 18, and partly because she thought he was turning into “a mean son of a bitch,” his mother sent him back to Toronto to live with his father in 1939 after Canada declared war on Germany.
About this time he met a “shy, elegant” woman named Yvonne (Tody) Harrison at a dance in Toronto. She was the youngest of four daughters of Robert, a railway porter, and his wife Edythe (nee Lewis) Harrison. Smitten, he resolved to marry her and, because he was still too young to enlist, he took a job as a machinist making anti-aircraft guns at a factory in Hamilton, near where she lived.
In 1942, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, but his poor eyesight made him ineligible for combat duty. Consequently, he spent the war on this side of the Atlantic as a wireless operator in various parts of the country including Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. After he was discharged with the rank of corporal in the summer of 1945, he went back to Hamilton, and took advantage of a veteran’s grant to enter Central Collegiate in Hamilton to complete the credits he needed to enter university.
He enrolled in history and economics at McMaster University in 1946 and quickly arranged to bring his mother back from New York. Alas, she soon began exhibiting symptoms of dementia and had to be institutionalized. She died in Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital on her son’s 26th birthday, in January 1948. “My mother was the single biggest influence on me–before my wife,” Alexander told Chatelaine magazine in 1986. “I’ve always regretted that she didn’t live to see me graduate from university.” It was his mother’s familiar mantra, “go to school, you’re a little black boy,” that he used for the title of his 2006 memoir.
Meanwhile, Alexander had renewed his friendship with Yvonne “Tody” Harrison. They were married on Sept. 10, 1948. He was 26, five years younger than his bride. After graduating from McMaster in 1949, Alexander applied for a job in sales at Stelco, the huge steel company in Hamilton where he had worked summers in the plant. Despite references and pleas from the university and the mayor of Hamilton, Stelco was unwilling to taint its public image by having a black man on its sales force and instead offered him his old summer job.
Rightly affronted, Alexander declined and instead enrolled in law school at Osgoode Hall in Toronto because he realized that being self-employed made the most sense for a “young black man with ambition.” During the academic year he commuted weekly from Hamilton, where he and his wife lived uneasily with her parents, and in the summers he worked on the plant floor at Stelco. The Alexanders’ only child, Keith, was born in 1949.