TRURO – Portia White has come home once again.
The Colchester Historeum’s third floor will be dedicated to the life and musical career of Portia White with an exhibit until mid-October. Portia’s niece, Sheila, spent about a week getting a number of items ready for display. The exhibit opens with a ceremony at 2 p.m. on May 11. Admission will be free that day.
“Portia moved to Halifax when she was 9 years old and her
father got called to the formerly named Cornwallis Street Baptist Church,” said
Sheila, taking a break from putting the final touches on the exhibit. “But she
grew up here. She attended Willow Street School, and she never lost her
fondness for this community.”
The exhibit came about at the Colchester Historeum after Elinor Mahar, a friend of the Historeum, saw a television spot in 2018 about the Portia White exhibit being on display in Toronto. The exhibit was celebrating Portia 50 years after she passed away. Mahar got in touch with Sheila about possibly bringing it to Truro, and the wheels were in motion.
“In my mind, I had the thought it could be a travelling show,” said Sheila. “We decided to bring her home to Truro.”
Portia was born in Truro on June 24, 1911. She was the second daughter to William ‘Andrew’ White and Izie Dora; the second of 13 children.
At the age of six, Portia started singing in the church choir, and the move to Halifax gave the young girl the opportunity to step up her singing as a church soloist. Over the years, she competed in the Nova Scotia Music Festival, where she captured the title as a mezza soprano singer many times over.
“She often said she felt homesick,” said Sheila, adding Portia often recalled her time in Nova Scotia while she lived in Toronto. “And the fact this province supported her career was amazing.”
She said her aunt was a major influence on the music industry in the province, and across the country, and Portia was recognized through what is now known as the Nova Scotia Talent Trust.
The Portia White exhibit came about, said Sheila, after Sheila’s mother passed away in 2016. She was going through documents her mother collected, and realized there were enough items to create the exhibit.
Her mother, said Sheila, had previously donated significant materials to the historical society in Ontario, however the items haven’t been found since.
“Those items included Portia’s personal scrapbook, so it pains me to know this exhibit could have been 10 times more extraordinary than it already is,” Sheila said. “But I think we’ve put together a great, in-depth display of her achievements in life, starting with her family tree and the child Portia had that was kept secret for many, many years.”
The exhibit features books, pictures, pieces of sheet music, and even posters of Portia’s achievements.
“I think we’ve done a good job in telling her story in a way for people to relate to and interact with. We even have some never before heard audio.”
While Sheila was 13 when her aunt passed away, she remembers Portia fondly.
“She was a lovely, large presence,” she said, adding Portia not only had a beautiful singing voice, but a speaking one as well. “She had lots of things to say and had no shortage of opinions. She was very well-informed and loved to talk. She had a very engaging personality and really had a knack for making people feel special.”
She said nothing seemed to hold Portia back, and was able to accomplish so much despite the barriers she faced.
“She broke the ground and opened the doors for so many (artists) after her. If there wasn’t a Portia White, there wouldn’t have been a Drake.”
Margaret Mulrooney, the historeum’s curator, said they are thrilled to be hosting the exhibit.
“We are so happy Sheila and Alex came all this way to help set up this exhibit and have entrusted us with these invaluable items,” she said. “We’ve already been receiving interest from local schools about tours.”
She said the exhibit displays a wonderful story of Portia’s life, and Portia is included in the historeum’s core exhibit, albeit not in as extensive a way.
“To be able to dive into her story and career, that’s what this temporary exhibit space is all about,” Mulrooney said.
Because of fans throughout the province, Mulrooney expects to have visitors from outside the local area as well.
“She’s been made a person of significance in Canadian history and I think those people who are aware of Portia will want to learn more, and those who may not know much about her will be intrigued.”
The exhibit runs until Oct. 22.