In 1954, I joined a sit-in for civil rights in small-town Ontario. Seventy years later, I’m still fighting for equality

In 1954, I joined a sit-in for civil rights in small-town Ontario. Seventy years later, I’m still fighting for equality

“One man told us that, until our protest, he couldn’t even buy an ice cream in his hometown”

Photo by Sierra Nallo

Ruth Lor Malloy is a Toronto-based journalist, author and activist. In 1954, she participated in a restaurant sit-in in Dresden, Ontario, alongside fellow activists fighting racial discrimination in the province. The sit-in gained widespread media attention in and around Toronto and launched Lor Malloy’s lifelong fight for racial justice. Her memoir about her international activism work, Brightening My Corner: a Memoir of Dreams Fulfilled, is out this month from Barclay Press. Here, she tells us about how it all happened.

l was born in 1932 in Brockville, Ontario, into one of two Chinese families in an otherwise all-white United Empire Loyalist town. My mother was one of the few Chinese people who had been born in Canada at that time. My father was 12 years old when he arrived, before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 banned further Chinese immigration into the country. 

Growing up in Brockville was difficult for me. When other children shouted hurtful names and belted me with vicious rhymes on the street, I went crying to my mother. She assured me that they were ignorant. But being excluded from normal teenage activities hurt even more. None of our classmates ever asked my sister or me for a date. I wondered if something was wrong with me, with being Chinese. It wasn’t until university that I learned about Chinese Canadian history and the fear and hatred that some people felt toward us. Canadian newspapers sometimes referred to us as the “yellow peril,” and some politicians argued that Chinese people were inferior.

I wanted to be a journalist, a foreign correspondent. I loved geography and travelling, and I received good marks in English. My English teacher told me that journalists needed to learn about the world, and he suggested I attend Victoria College at the University of Toronto, his alma mater.

I moved to Toronto in 1950 and studied psychology, sociology, Chinese religion and philosophy. In university, I met other Canadian-born Chinese people and felt like I had found my tribe, a place where I didn’t feel different from everyone else. I also met people of other racial backgrounds, and I learned that fear and suspicion were not just aimed at Canada’s Chinese minority. Except for a couple of sleeping-car porters, I hadn’t met anyone of African descent until I moved to Toronto. I’d only seen them represented in Hollywood movies as slaves, comic relief characters and villains. I learned about harmful racial stereotypes and that racism affected everyone who looked or acted differently from the white majority. 

I ate lunch daily in the little office of a campus organization called Friendly Relations with Overseas Students (FROS), a supportive place for foreign students to relax, get counselling and meet new friends. I sat in on meetings, fascinated by the heated political discussions of students from Africa, the Caribbean and beyond. I learned about the world from people who had lived in unfamiliar places. I also loved their sense of humour. Despite the serious subjects at hand, they weren’t afraid to laugh at themselves.

One day, I complimented a friend on the tattoo on her arm. “It’s so pretty,” I said. You can imagine how stupid I felt when she said that the Nazis had tattooed all of their Jewish prisoners. Being called hateful names was nothing compared to that, I thought.

I went out with a Japanese Canadian man for my first Japanese meal. He described his life in an internment camp and how his family’s belongings had been confiscated. He said other Canadians feared that all Japanese people were dangerous, even those born in Canada. I dated a Nigerian, a Sikh and a Taiwanese man. I met someone from South Africa and joined the boycott against apartheid. The Royal Ontario Museum also expanded my perception of the world, with its collection of magnificent Chinese statues, paintings and costumes. It made me proud of my Chinese heritage. My perspective grew, and so did my empathy.

As my time at U of T drew to a close, I wanted to learn more about racial discrimination and what could be done about it. Then, one day at Hart House, I saw an advertisement for a month-long, all-expenses-paid workshop in Washington, DC, on non-violent ways to fight racial discrimination. It seemed like a good opportunity to find answers to my questions and see more of the world. I applied and was accepted. It was 1954, the year before police arrested Rosa Parks in Alabama for refusing to give up her seat in the front of a public bus to a white man. Her actions would inspire a massive movement against racial segregation, led by Martin Luther King Jr.

The workshop was held in a large house in a residential part of the city. I was the only person of Asian descent in our multiracial group of nine. Our teacher, Wally Nelson, had been in prison for three years for refusing to pay taxes that would go toward weapons that killed or intimidated people. He was a pacifist. He was then living a life of simplicity, making just enough money to avoid paying any taxes at all. He was also a veteran of hunger strikes and Freedom Rides, riding in the front of public buses in defiance of segregation laws. 

The year before the trip, the DC government had passed laws forbidding racial discrimination in public places. There had been riots in the city earlier in 1954 when white people objected to Black people using public swimming pools. Our team went to playgrounds and soda fountains to see if we would all be allowed to use them. Fortunately, no one seemed to object. No one called the police. During the several years that Wally had led the workshops, we were the first group that didn’t have any arrests or violence. These experiences were like a trial run for the work that would come later.

Wally taught us various non-violent protesting techniques, such as picketing and boycotting businesses that would not serve everybody. He taught us how important it was to convince governments to make laws forbidding racial discrimination, but also that the laws had to be tested. Violators needed to be charged and punished if found guilty to stop them from discriminating again. These techniques were all new to me, and I was happy to learn that there was some hope for change. 

One day, Wally asked what we were doing about racial equality in Canada. I didn’t know, so when I returned to Toronto to look for a job, I started asking questions. During one interview, I mentioned my Washington experience and was introduced to Sid Blum, a Jewish man from New York who was fighting racism in labour unions and in the larger community in Ontario. He worked for the Joint Labour Committee on Human Rights. At the time, Sid was organizing a sit-in, or test, of a couple of restaurants and a barbershop in Dresden, Ontario, because the businesses were refusing to serve Black customers. This was in violation of the Fair Accommodation Practices Act, passed that year, which forbade refusal of service on the basis of race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin. 

I don’t know why Sid invited me to be part of the test group. Maybe he thought a woman of another racialized group would attract more press coverage. I wanted to be able to tell Wally that Canadians, too, were doing something to fight racism, so I quickly agreed. 

In late October 1954, Sid drove me and Bromley Armstrong, a Jamaican immigrant who had been fighting discrimination in the workplace, to Dresden, a five-hour trip from Toronto. Sid wouldn’t let us stop to eat on the way. We agreed that we should be genuinely hungry in case a judge asked us later, at the offending restaurant owner’s trial, why we had gone to this restaurant. In Dresden, Hugh Burnett, a descendant of enslaved people and a Canadian army veteran, joined us. We visited one of the offending restaurants, Kay’s Café, a greasy spoon on the town’s main street. 

Sid had alerted journalists from Toronto newspapers to witness and report on what happened. They met us at the restaurant. Bromley, Hugh and I pretended we didn’t know them.

I entered the restaurant with the two men, feeling excited to be taking action and doing something extraordinary. Others had tried to prove racial discrimination at this restaurant before, but ours was the first test since the passing of the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. I wasn’t afraid—Hugh and Bromley were big men, and the journalists were watching. The three of us sat together at a table and waited patiently while a waitress served Sid and the journalists at the other tables. She scowled in our direction, completely ignoring us. I had expected this kind of treatment because other groups had been unsuccessful at receiving service there. I was pleased that we would get proof that the restaurant was breaking the law.

While we waited, Bromley told me that Hugh had been forced to move to another town because white people in Dresden refused to hire him even though he’d grown up there and Black people made up about 20 per cent of the town’s population. Hugh had been very vocal in his fight against racism, pressuring the premier of Ontario to enact a law against racial discrimination in public places. 

After about 15 minutes, Hugh finally asked for the manager, and a man named Morley McKay came out of the kitchen, making chopping motions with a cleaver. I felt my heartbeat quicken, but I was more curious than afraid. Sid and the journalists were watching us. When McKay refused to serve us and headed back to the kitchen, the photographer started taking photos.  

Afterward, we thought about going to the other restaurant and the barbershop, but they were closed. We drove back to Toronto feeling elated that we had a solid case, and the journalists went back to their newspapers to report the story.

Coverage of the Dresden sit-in in Toronto newspapers, including the Toronto Star

The next day, Bromley and I were on the front pages of the Toronto Star and the Toronto Telegram. At his trial for violating the Fair Accommodation Practices Act that December, McKay’s lawyer argued that the law was a federal matter and not a provincial one, and we lost the case. We were disappointed but determined to try again. It took a second test shortly afterward, with Caribbean volunteers from FROS being denied service, to prove that the restaurant was defying the law. That trial we won.

I was encouraged by our victory in Dresden, and I wanted to continue doing more research into racial discrimination. It was so satisfying to work with like-minded people toward a common goal. We even had fun doing it. Sid booked us all first-class tickets on a train coach for the second trial in Chatham—I had never ridden first-class before. When we won, Sid figured that McKay would have to pay our court costs too. Instead, McKay was fined something like $50, but he did start serving everyone after that. At the victory party at Sid’s place afterwards, he and his wife, Mary, taught us to dance the hora

Being part of Black history was the start of my activism work, and almost 70 years later, I’m still pushing forward. For Black History Month in 2000, Bromley and I went back to Dresden to film Journey to Justice, a documentary about several important efforts to fight anti-Black discrimination, for the National Film Board. Kay’s restaurant was no longer there, but a man recognized Bromley on the street and thanked him. He hugged me too. Until our sit-ins, the man said, he couldn’t even buy an ice cream cone in his hometown.

In 2013, Bromley invited me to a ceremony at York University, where he was given an honorary doctorate recognizing his long fight for racial equality. I was thrilled for him. When the CBC took Bromley and me to Dresden again to film a segment for The National the following year, we saw a plaque near city hall dedicated to Hugh. Sadly, it was too late for him to see it—Hugh had passed away in 1991.

Then, in 2021, 67 years after Dresden, I discovered that the Toronto Labour Council was still using a 1954 picture of Bromley and me in posters on the Toronto subway. It seemed like we were officially a part of the city’s Black history. 

The author and Bromley on a Toronto Labour Council poster at a bus stop in North York in 2021

Over the course of my life, I have witnessed many of the problems that keep people around the world from working together. I worked as a correspondent in wartime Vietnam and have seen the diminishing ice caps in the Arctic. I have tried to understand the world’s growing refugee population by joining a group that sponsors refugees to Canada. I went to work camps in an Indigenous village in Mexico and another in the Canadian Arctic, where our group worked on a rehabilitation centre for Inuit victims of tuberculosis. These experiences have helped me find opportunities to bring people together.

Racial and cultural discrimination, the need that some individuals have to feel superior to others, will always be with us, and we need to keep fighting it. I think that each of us has to start by looking at ourselves and examining our own biases. Why did we feel so superior at our victory over the Dresden restaurant owner back in 1954? Why didn’t we think to look at the source of his discriminatory beliefs? I believe that we should reach out wherever there’s human suffering that we can help ameliorate. We may not be able to change the world, but we can brighten our own corners.