Shirley Kingslow Oliver: What brought you here, and where did you go?
By Andrew Switzer
You may remember our ˜Spotlight’ series, having illuminated the lives of little-known Edmontonians in the past, including Louise Umphreville and Morris ˜Two-Gun’ Cohen. Today we’ll take you back to the 1920s and the life of jazz musician Shirley Kingslow Oliver!
Something special for this edition: each section in the following sketch of Oliver’s life in Edmonton has a link to a jazz or spiritual piece of music in the sub-title. Try listening as you read!
“Wabash Blues” – Introduction
If you were a jazz lover in Edmonton in 1923 and you wanted to spend the night enjoying a “classic in jazz” from one of the city’s best orchestras you would certainly have known about the gig Graydon Tipp and His Midnight Rounders were included in on October 30 at the Pantages. The Pantages was a vaudeville theatre hot-spot at 10201 Jasper Avenue, current location of the EnbridgeTower, and next to the Paramount Theatre.
Vaudeville theatre itself was often racially derogatory towards blacks, this very presentation included an undoubtedly blackface act with the Harris and Holly performance depicting the “Plantation Days.” Graydon Tipp and his orchestra however, appear to have been one of Edmonton’s early institutions to develop a genuine relationship between blacks and whites. Shirley Kingslow Oliver was the pianist in the orchestra for what looks to be a good part of the 1920s, and likely one of Edmonton’s first black musicians to break through the colour line. Born in Boston but coming North from Chicago, Oliver arrived in Edmonton in 1920 around the age of 25.
Edmonton at this time was a city of both subtle and flagrant racism. One of the most glaring attempts was an anti-black immigration petition orchestrated in 1911 by the Secretary of the Board of Trade, Mr. Fisher. It was signed by 3400 Edmontonians (Thomson 80-81). Other fundamental rights abuses were likely not uncommon. For instance in 1922 Lula Anderson sued the Metropolitan theatre for assault and for refusing her admittance based on colour despite her having successfully purchased tickets (Edmonton Journal, June 3, 1922). By the early 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan held gatherings in Edmonton with hundreds of attendees.
“King Porter Stomp” – Early Years
In Edmonton, Oliver initially worked as a train porter, a job quite common for Canada’s early black immigrants due to racist restrictions on employment. Oliver shows up as starting his work as a porter in 1922, although he may have began earlier. He ported for the Edmonton, Dunvegan & British Columbia Railway. As such, he would have become familiar with Alberta’s Peace River region, an experience which will prove relevant for one of his later interests. Train porting was a strenuous and demeaning job as described by Sarah-Jane Mathieu in her article, “North of the Colour Line: Sleeping Car Porters and the Battle against Jim Crow on Canadian Rails”:
Once assigned to a car, they insured that it was clean and fully equipped; in case it was not, they hurriedly buffed and polished before passengers boarded. Canadian railway companies did not pay porters for this time consuming compulsory dead work.
¦Once on the road, the sleeping car porter tended to his passengers’ every whim. The porter greeted travelers, stowed luggage, pulled down berths in the evening, and hurriedly converted them back into seats in the morning. Responsible for remembering passengers’ schedules, he was severely reprimanded when someone missed their stop. The porter, whom passengers condescendingly called ‘George’ or ‘boy’, served food, mixed drinks, shined shoes, cared for small children, sick passengers, and drunken ones too (15).
In this same year, 1922, his wife Lizzie Oliver appears to have arrived in Edmonton and worked as a dressmaker for Mrs. J. Bell. By 1923, Shirley Oliver takes up a position as a porter for the Hub Barber Shop at 10116-101 street. Although porting for the Hub Barber Shop would have been less physically demanding than railroad work, it was still a position in which Oliver would have to face daily discrimination.
Tracking these changes in Oliver’s work life is valuable for the clues they offer into his personality. It reveals he was a person who continually looked forward and carried through with his plans. Once he begins work for Graydon Tipp or at least focuses his work on music, this signals a shift in Oliver’s thinking regarding his possibilities in Edmonton society. Now he could also avoid the long journeys into Alberta’s northwest and stay in Edmonton with his wife. One wonders also if this was part of a strategic decision he may have made to help him develop his music career. Had he met Graydon Tipp by this time? What would they have discussed if they did meet? It is difficult to pin down the exact locations and times of the Oliver Headline from Edmonton Bulletin, November 27, 1922residences as the Edmonton Henderson Directory gives conflicting information. The Olivers did, however, settle down by 1922 at 11613-89 street near the current Commonwealth Stadium. With his wife here, a new cottage of their own, and a new job based in the city, the Olivers show a long term desire to stay in Edmonton. Indeed they would, remaining here for eight years, up to 1930.
This profile was inspired by a request from Fort Edmonton Park friends Val and Iain Little of the Clown Cartel, who live in the Olivers’ lovely old house! Check back soon for the second half of our spotlight on this early denizen of Edmonton’s music scene!