Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Tales of the City #5 - Black Lives Matter

Aug 21, 2020

While waiting for my next book, Becoming Vancouver: A New History, to be published -- delayed by the COVID situation -- I thought I'd introduce the project by telling some "tales of the city."

Early in the morning of July 19, 1952, a 52-year-old stevedore named Clarence Clemons got into a scuffle with police at the New Station Café on Main Street. The New Station had a reputation as a lively afterhours joint close to Hogan’s Alley. “It was world-renowned,” affirmed Dorothy Nealy, a neighbourhood resident. “People would come from all parts of the city, used to come off the ships, the merchant seamen, and they’d stop you, ‘where’s this New Station?’ You ordered something to eat, and you had your bottles with you, and you drank, and you met people and laughed and talked and danced up and down the aisles."

On this occasion Clemons, who was Black, ended up in a jail cell charged with assault. Complaining of pain and partially paralysed, he was taken to hospital where doctors could not find anything wrong with him. After his wife bailed him out of jail, Clemons continued to experience serious discomfort. A few days later he lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered. He died the day before Christmas.

Coincidentally, on the day of Clemons’s arrest, the Sun ran an article profiling Vancouver’s Black community. According to reporter Bruce Ramsey there were about 700 “negroes” living in the city. While prejudice against them was not as bad as in the United States, wrote Ramsey, many local employers “continue to draw the colour line when hiring.” An exception was the railway, where many of the men in the community found employment as porters and stewards. “The local negro population has given the police very little trouble,” wrote Ramsey, an ironic observation given the outcry that erupted over Clemons’s treatment.

The Pacific Tribune, a communist newspaper, was the first to take up the case, claiming that Clemons was victimized by police because of his race. Human rights activists got involved, demanding that the city police commission investigate. In October, while Clemons lay in a coma, the commission decided there was not enough evidence to pursue the case. When he died, however, an inquest convened. It opened on January 6, 1953, attracting an overflowing courtroom and front page headlines. The all-white jury heard from more than fifty witnesses, some of whom said they saw police bludgeoning Clemons, others claiming that he was a troublesome drunk who resisted arrest. In the end it was the medical evidence, or lack of it, that led the jury to exonerate the police. Doctors testified that Clemons had a pre-existing degenerative condition of the spine which was aggravated by the scuffle but not caused by it. The Black community remained unsatisfied, but public attention moved on. (Ross Lambertson has a full discussion of the case in the Canadian Historical Review, Dec. 2004.)

Twenty years later most of the Hogan's Alley neighbourhood was levelled in the name of urban renewal. If you are interested in the history of Vancouver's Black community, a good place to start is with the Hogan's Alley Society.