Francis Dorrington has come a long way from the days when he was not allowed to sit and sip a Coke at the soda fountain with his schoolmates.
As a high school athlete, Dorrington recalls heading downtown to the local restaurant with his basketball teammates to enjoy a nice cold beverage and share in the camaraderie after a game. But once inside, Dorrington was not permitted to stay with his friends at the soda counter. Dorrington is black and in those days, people of colour were not permitted to sit in ‘whites only’ sections of places. Dorrington had to get his Coke to go.
Today, during African Heritage Month, the New Glasgow resident reflects on those experiences growing up. They are gone, but not forgotten.
As a young man, Dorrington worked for the CNR as a porter on the Halifax to Montreal run. At that time, it was the only job blacks could get on the railway. He then went to work at Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax as a nursing orderly.
“I learned a lot during those four years from the older people,” the 85-year-old Dorrington smiled.
He eventually moved his young family back to New Glasgow when he took a job with the newly built Michelin Tire plant in Granton. He and his wife Frances, who hails from Halifax County, had six children.
As a young boy growing up in New Glasgow, in a house that Dorrington said straddled the line between the town and the county, Dorrington attended the elementary school that was in Priestville at the time.
“Being black, there was nothing much here for us. While growing up, we had no black people in anything other than in church – our own church. I began to say to myself, ‘Why are we allowed only this’?”
It was after he moved back to New Glasgow that he took more of a leadership role in his community.
The restrictions for people of colour bothered Dorrington, but he did not feel confident enough in himself at that time to articulate his concerns.
Until in 1959 when he joined a group called the Jaycees, a leadership training and civic organization for people between the ages of 18 and 40. It is this group that Dorrington credits for a lot of his confidence.
“I applied to the Jaycees and got on. I was the first black person accepted in New Glasgow.
“They had an effective speaking course and I was surprised at how I grew with them. I made a lot of friends and still have a lasting friendship with some of them today.”
In addition to public speaking, Dorrington learned parliamentary procedure and how to conduct a meeting through the Jaycees. “I was taught the right way,” he nodded.
“The Jaycees gave me the tools.”
So when Dorrington saw things he wanted to change, he was well armed with the knowledge and the skills and ability learned from the Jaycees that he combined with his own desire to make change happen.
“I didn’t want to go through life being an underdog,” he explained. “I was okay to be an ‘even dog’ but not an underdog.”
Dorrington decided one way he could affect his community and bring about change was by being on town council. “The politicians would make the rounds during election time and they’d come to the Vale Road and ask for your vote, then you’d never see them again.”
Dorrington changed that.
“I ran in a by-election and lost. Six months later I ran again and won.” That was 1976.
And so began a 21-year history of serving on New Glasgow’s Town Council as a representative for Ward One. Dorrington was a trail blazer in that he was the first black man to serve in this capacity.
Throughout his time on council, Dorrington served as deputy mayor for a number of years and was acting mayor in 1987. He continued to blaze a trail as the first black man to be elected to the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities; first black man on the executive of the Nova Scotia School Board Association and the first black man on the executive of the Recreation Association of Nova Scotia. He also served on the Aberdeen Hospital Board and was its chairman during renovations. He also chaired a school board luncheon in Halifax with more than 200 people in attendance. “Not bad for a boy who couldn’t drink a Coke in a restaurant with his friends,” Dorrington noted.
“I am proud to say that during my time on council I headed up the first Black Homecoming with some others. And I feel awfully proud that it’s still going on today. It just goes to show that our people can come together.”
Before Dorrington joined town council, he said Vale Road got very little notice. That changed when Dorrington won his council seat.
“Council was good to me,” he recalled. “After 21 years I left on my own. I think I served the people to the best of my ability. I never promised anybody anything but I would tell people, ‘If I am elected I will try’. I gave a lot.”
Today, Dorrington is happy to sit back and enjoy listening to music, reading and keeping up with current affairs.
“I say together we can do wonders; alone we cannot.”