Chapter 1: My Early YearsMy name is Raymond Gray Lewis. Most people just call me Ray. But there was a time when just about the only name I was known by was Rapid Ray, in my hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, and across Canada.
Why was I called Rapid Ray? Because I could outrun just about any other opponent when I was young.
Of course, I was called a lot of other names too, mostly because of my skin color. Being a Canadian of African descent, I grew up during a time, in the early part of the 20th century, when being black meant that you were treated differently than people with light skin. It was a time of terrible discrimination. You had to struggle. You might have to fight hard for a job. You could expect to be turned down for a loan from a bank if you were trying to buy a house. In school, you were likely to be teased or called names by your classmates – and the white teachers might treat you poorly – all because of the color of your skin. Even just buying a loaf of bread at the grocery store, getting a table in a restaurant, or trying to sit in the front section of a movie theater could be difficult. Black people in Canada and the United States, the descendants of slaves brought to work on farms and plantations, had to fight for respect every day of their lives. As the great-grandson of former slaves, it was no different for me.
I had to put up with all kinds of name calling, by other kids and later by adults, whether I was running to school, racing around the block, or competing in track-and-field meets across the country. But you can believe me when I tell you that being treated poorly by others didn’t defeat me. It only made me want to run harder, to prove to everyone that I could achieve great things.
I ran so hard, in fact, that I went all the way to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California, and to the British Empire Games in London, England, where I even sat down to dinner with royalty.
While I was training as an athlete for the Olympics, I worked hard, too, as a railway porter on the Canadian Pacific Railway, serving people who were traveling across Canada and into the United States.
I was born in Hamilton, on Clyde Street, on October 8, 1910. Hamilton is known as Canada’s Steel Town, and it produces much of the steel used in manufacturing things we use every day, from cars and stoves to refrigerators, tools, and machinery. It was – and still is – a very busy city. I grew up watching cargo carriers steam into the harbor with raw iron ore; people bustled about the streets to and from work, and horses pulled wagons that carried milk, eggs, and bread to customers throughout the city.
I was the youngest child of Cornelius and Emma Lewis. My eldest brother was Victor, followed by my sister Marjorie, then my brother Howard, and finally me. My parents taught me the value of working hard. That meant working hard in school and, when I became an athlete, training hard too.
I attended Wentworth Street Public School. I used
to get up in the morning, have my breakfast, and, while I didn’t dawdle too much, sometimes I had to run hard to get to school before the bell at nine o’clock a.m. Lucky for me, the school was only about a block and a half away. I’m pleased to say that I was never late to school, not even one day, even though I had to run hard to get there at times. It was a big public school for the time – two storeys high, with several hundred students and more than twelve rooms. Many years after I attended it, Wentworth Public School was closed and later torn down to make way for an apartment building.
Growing up on Clyde Street was fun. The younger I was, the less fuss white people made about the color of my skin. My friends and I used to play hockey on the streets and, where buses, cars, and trucks now drive through Hamilton’s busy downtown core, the milkman and the bread man would come down the street in their wagons, pulled by big, strong horses, clip-clopping along at a slow but steady pace. On Friday nights, the farmers would come up nearby Cannon Street, their horse-drawn wagons loaded with produce, heading for the market that opened on Saturday morning. In those days before refrigerators, the ice wagon was another sight, trundling down the street, delivering huge blocks of ice. The iceman was big, with broad shoulders and thick, ropy arms. He’d use long iron tongs to grab a block of ice, then sling it over his shoulder to make his delivery, whistling as he headed into one of many houses that had an icebox.
Once in a while, kids would swipe a peach or other piece of fruit from a passing farmer’s wagon. Police officers, patrolling the downtown neighborhood on bicycles, would chase the rascals through the streets, but the kids usually got away. While some people owned automobiles, they were expensive and were rare sights. Most people got around by walking or on bicycles, or they used the streetcar.
When I was growing up, streetcars were a familiar sight along what was called the Belt Line, which ran through Hamilton’s downtown core. And just two blocks from my house was the car barn where streetcars were repaired. My friends and I would watch the streetcars being moved around in the big yard where they were stored. We would watch and marvel at the mechanics working on the big streetcar engines.
Just down the street from my house was the fire hall. My friends and I might be playing in Woodland Park, not far from my home, and hear the siren of the fire wagon as the firefighters took off, slapping the reins of their horses in response to a call. That was a call to us too. We dropped our gloves and bats and took off towards the station. We would run alongside the horses as they charged out of the firehouse. We could run as fast as the hook-and-ladder wagon for about 50 or 60 metres, even taking off ahead of them for a while. I would always be out in front of my friends, almost nose to nose with a big bay mare, hearing the huffing of her breath as the firefighters urged her on. I would listen to the sound of the horses’ hooves pounding on the street before they would pick up their pace and canter off ahead of us up the street, leaving us to catch our breath in the dust they stirred up.
I ran everywhere. I would run past the train station and see the passengers boarding or disembarking, and the porters, all of them black like me, stooping to pick up bags or to help people onto the train – always smiling, always polite.
During the week, I would have to run over to Barton Street to get coal oil for our family’s lamps. Like a car, electricity was an expensive commodity, and it would be a few years before we could afford to have electricity put into our house.
For kids, watching sports, as well as playing them, was a great way to have fun, and Hamilton in those days was home to many great sports teams, like the Hamilton Tigers of the NHL. The Hamilton Tigers hockey team would play against Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal at the Hamilton Arena, which was owned by the Abso-Pure (for “absolutely pure”) Ice Company, at the corner of Wentworth and Barton Streets. Not only did the company sell ice – it had the best ice surface in the city!
Thanks to Canadian athletes like Ned Hanlan, rowing was a popular sport in the early 20th century, but it was soon replaced by competitive bicycling. Soccer was also played, largely between teams from the different companies in the city. There was the Hamilton Tigers football team, which had been around since 1869 and which later became the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. Hamilton was also known as a great track-and-field city, with many leading athletes coming to town for meets. We had our own track-and-field heroes and champions, like Billy Sherring, who won the marathon at the Athens Olympic Games in 1906, and Bobby Kerr, winner of the 220-meter race at the 1908 Olympic Games, who later managed the Olympic track-and-field team.
At Woodland Park, there was a softball diamond, and its green spaces were a gathering place for many people, who would get together to listen to band concerts on Friday nights, a big social event in the community.
As I said, adults walked, bicycled, or took the streetcar. But kids ran everywhere. It was a community where neighborhoods were tightly knit and people knew each other. It was easy to run from one place to another, dodging the occasional ice wagon or jumping out of the way of a bicycle when you heard the familiar ring-ring
of its bell. Everywhere I went children ran through the streets.
For entertainment, I often went to the Savoy Theatre with friends to see the movies. The price of admission was 35 cents for the floor seats and 25 cents for the loges seating upstairs. Most people would pay the extra dime to sit on the lower level, because it gave you a better view of the movie. I would have my money ready at the ticket window. But I always would be sold a 25-cent ticket, no questions asked, on the assumption that because I was black I could not afford a 35-cent ticket. I would have to insist on buying the 35-cent ticket. It was something that I got used to, and going to the movies gave me a chance to develop a love for good entertainment. Much later, when I worked as a railway porter, that love would carry me through many years of lonely stops in big cities across Canada.
When I was in my teens, I even had a chance to work for a theater owner named Mr. Guest who ran two movie theaters, the Empire Theatre and the Queen’s Theatre. My job was to carry reels of film back and forth between the two theaters. The movies were mostly cowboy pictures or action movies. Mr. Guest would pay my way to and from each theater on the jitney, a small bus that ran a regular route around Hamilton. I was paid 10 cents per reel of film; one day I made 70 cents when the theater showed the big picture The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
And that was a lot of money at the time.
When I was a child, life had enough funny events to make it interesting. For instance, around that time, my friends and I were in the habit of teasing an elderly couple that lived behind Wentworth Street School. We would knock on their door and run away, laughing when the old woman would come to the door, look out, and find no one there.
On one particular day we had knocked on the door and ran off as usual. But on the street next to mine, one of my friends yelled to me, “She’s following you!” Sure enough the old lady was hot on my heels. I got home and a little girl from across the street called out to the old woman, “He lives in there!” and pointed to our house. This is before we had a porch; there were some concrete blocks that served as steps up to the front door. I had already scrambled up the steps and shot into the house, while the old woman stormed across the street. Soon she was rapping hard at our door.
I was quaking as my sister Marjorie answered the door. I was certain that I was going to be in big trouble, and my parents always wanted to avoid trouble with the neighbors. Now, Marjorie had medium-brown skin and I’m a little lighter. The woman saw Marjorie and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve got the wrong house.” She must have thought, from a distance, that I was white and so couldn’t have lived there. Confused, she turned and went home. We had a good laugh over that; and it has happened to me at other times in my life as well. My light complexion sometimes fooled people, from a distance, into thinking that I was white.
I did a lot of my growing up during World War I. The war began in 1914, and ended on November 11, 1918. At the time, Canada had a population of seven million; under Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, able-bodied men were urged to join the fight. Around 620,000 men joined the Canadian Army and a total of 59,544 Canadians lost their lives in the war.
For kids, it was an exciting time. “Let’s go!” my friends would yell, and we would run up Cannon Street to see the trucks and the soldiers on their way to the James Street Armouries. We would watch the military trucks thunder past, raising little dust devils in the early sun, their gears grinding, engines huff-puffing. Up close, we could feel the rumble of their engines in our bones; the sound of that heavy equipment shifting gears carried through the neighborhood. It added to the general stir of excitement that became a part of day-to-day life: Canada’s war effort was important, and even as a youngster, I could feel it stir something inside of me as much as the rumble of the trucks going by was felt in my bones.
The scene was always enthusiastic, with people on the street cheering and waving to the soldiers. No one thought about death at the hands of the Germans thousands of miles away – everybody thought only of fighting for our country and for Great Britain. We followed the trucks up every street and it was a thrill for us to see the soldiers in their crisp new uniforms, tilting their heads slightly at us as they went past in military precision. Soldiers smiled at the crowds, one arm swinging, the other holding a rifle.
Enlistment officials would stop men on the street, putting a hand on an arm and urging them to listen. They called out to the crowds in loud, strained voices. “Come with us to fight the Germans! Come on! Come with us!” they would shout. “Fight for democracy. Fight for freedom.” It was a common sight to see men in business suits, or workmen in coveralls, or young men barely out of their teens – each and every one stirred by patriotism and a desire to fight for freedom – asking for information on signing up.
It wasn’t long before we heard warplanes, something new to us, buzzing overhead. In fact, the airplane had only been around for eleven years before the war started; it was so new and different that the sound of one passing overhead was guaranteed to stop people in their tracks. They would look up, cheer, and wave to the pilot.
At Gore Park, a public square and important gathering place in Hamilton’s downtown, rallies were held to aid in the war effort and to keep everybody’s patriotic feelings high. There were demonstrations of modern tanks, looking to us like blocks of solid steel as they pivoted on tractor treads, their gun turrets swiveling, crushing railway boxcars to show just how powerful they were. It was an impressive sight. During the demonstrations, people were urged to buy Victory Bonds to help raise money for the war effort.
It wasn’t always easy for the black community, though. While some African-Canadians were accepted into the service early on, too often black men were turned away. This happened in many communities across Canada, including Hamilton.
I would hear of black men being told by recruiters “We can’t use you!” even though the country desperately needed soldiers. A few African-Canadians fought in the war in all-black, segregated units, and there were others whose service was confined mainly to military construction crews. But the black community still felt a wave of patriotism as strong as that felt in the white community. We wanted to do our part for the war effort.
It would be more than four hard years of fighting before the war ended. But when a bit of good news got out, people would overreact — they were all too happy and eager to hear that the fighting was ended. A few days before World War I was officially over, a false announcement rippled through our neighborhood. We all thought the war was over; the man who lived next door ran into his backyard and began tooting his bugle. Turns out he was getting a head start on celebrations, but it wasn’t long before the real victory was finally announced. The following year, 1919, there were Victory Bond parades. People sang, they held parties, and they danced down the streets, arm in arm. I recall my father on one of the floats sponsored by the company he worked for as a janitor; he was standing tall and proud, smiling and waving to the crowd.
In the winter of 1918–1919, the great influenza epidemic hit Hamilton in the same way it hit other cities across North America and around the world – with pain and misery. Some experts said it killed 20 million people worldwide; others said it might have killed even more, up to 50 million. There were cities whose funeral parlors didn’t have enough coffins to handle all the deaths. In Hamilton, more than 5000 people died. In our own house, my sister Marjorie and brother Victor became very ill and lay close to death for many days. We did not expect them to survive.
I would walk slowly from Marjorie’s room to Victor’s room, speaking to my mother in whispers, watching my sister and brother shiver and shake in the light from the coal oil lamps. Their eyes were tired and their teeth chattered. At my young age, I didn’t understand death and didn’t really know what to expect. However, given that the epidemic would go on to kill hundreds in our city, I was sadly waiting for their end to come. Doctors were pressed into service and our own family doctor found it hard to pay a visit, since there were many more who were also sick and in need of help. But Marjorie and Victor lived. Eventually they got stronger until they both made complete recoveries.
Excerpted from Rapid Ray by John Cooper. Copyright © 2002 by John Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Tundra Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.