The Race Riots of 1919

On the evening of Tuesday, February 18th a group of men, drunk, and with little to do, began what would turn into a two night riot and would result in tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to stores and restaurants in the Old North End.

Mrs. Patton outside her store at 21 Gottingen (1919)

Mrs. Patton outside her store at 21 Gottingen (1919) – Halifax Herald

The targets of the rioters? During the first night it was exclusively Chinese owned restaurants. The second night the newspaper qualified the damage by describing the situation as follows:

There was neither rhyme nor reason about last night’s display of brute force. Some of the victims were Hebrews, and one is an Assyrian, but the attack on the Patton establishment is sufficient evidence that the mob was actually by no desire save to smash, to break and destroy. (Halifax Herald, 20 February 1919)

Despite the inclusion of Mrs. Patton’s shoe store at 21 Gottingen in the damage – the store window was broken and front door smashed and it “rained shoes on Gottingen for nearly 10 minutes” – the main focus of the rioters clearly was establishments whose owners were known to have a non-British origin.

Interior of one of the Chinese restaurants damaged in 1919 riots (Halifax Herald)

Interior of one of the Chinese restaurants damaged in 1919 riots (Halifax Herald)

The interesting part of this whole story for me is that the North End was a diverse neighbourhood and that it sustained at least six, if not more, well known Chinese restaurants – their names now lost to history these incidents speak of a powerful and long history of Chinese emigrants in Halifax. These restaurants – The Crown Cafe (Gottingen Street), Busy Bee (Barrington Street), Nova Scotia Cafe, Allies Cafe, Victory Cafe and the Frisco Cafe (Sackville Street) joined the other businesses, primarily laundries, that were owned and operated by these new Canadians.

The first documented Chinese to live in Halifax are mentioned in the Presbyterian Witness newspaper in 1891 when they speak to the fact that a Mr. Lee has opened a laundry in the city. The Presbyterian Church had an active mission in China and South East Asia with missionaries from Halifax and other parts of Nova Scotia for much of the later half of the 19th Century. Its interesting to see the community expand from one family to many families over the course of those first thirty years.

I came across mention of these riots in a great historical analysis of Halifax and it’s ability to deal with crime during the inter-war period City of Order: Crime and Society in Halifax, 1918-1935 by Michael Boudreau (UBCPress, 2013). As I mentioned above the most fascinating part of the story isn’t necessarily the riots themselves but rather the community which was impacted by them – the people who owned those businesses.

The editors of the Halifax Herald summed the whole thing up as follows and in doing so they point out a sad truth:

The race riots and raids on the Chinese restaurants in Halifax Tuesday night, and last night, were most flagrant violations of justice and law and an utter disgrace to the capital of Nova Scotia. Let our people remember, Chinese restaurant proprietors are not only law abiding, but also are showing a degree of business enterprise that the native born might well emulate or imitate. Therefore, as law abiding aliens who are increasing business in Halifax, the Chinese deserve the best protection that the laws and statutes can or should guarantee them. The voice and hand of every English-speaking or native born decent citizen of Halifax should be raised against the hooligans who, without provocation, but on their own devilish initiative, wantonly destroyed rightfully owned property. For in Canada the rights of property are almost as sacred as the rights of person. The law abiding Chinese must be protected, public order must be maintained at any price. Good citizens should, therefore, do all in their power to have these vandals who committed the crime against the Chinese ROUNDED UP AND PUNISHED. (Halifax Herald, 20 February 1919).

I find this whole thing extremely interesting… don’t you? As I dig and learn more I hope to be able to highlight some of the stories of these families as they add to the historic fabric of our community.

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6 thoughts on “The Race Riots of 1919

  1. Pingback: The Politics of a Building | The Old North End

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