A Tale of Two Exiles

I had to run some errands downtown before attending a dedication ceremony, and ended up riding the Montreal Metro system into a bizarre coincidence of history.

I was heading to the dedication of the duplex apartment that Jackie Robinson lived in when he played for the AAA Montreal Royals, just before he smashed major league baseball’s colour barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Ground floor: makeup, lingerie, and Confederate presidents. 

I made some copies and headed down toward Phillips Square to catch the orange line train at the McGill station. It occurred to me I was walking past the former home of another émigré from the states who lived in Montreal for quite different reasons than Jackie Robinson’s.

Part of the McGill metro station lies beneath the Hudson’s Bay Company store in downtown Montreal, a landmark department store whose red stone arches dominate the northern side of the square. On the building’s western side lies a 50-year-old plaque in French that almost no one pays any attention to anymore. The Bay’s employees take their lunch on the bench right in front of it and never know it’s there. And if anyone stopped to read the bronze marker, they’d make a mildly surprising discovery.

This was the home of Jefferson Davis.

Yes, that Jefferson Davis – the former president of the Confederate States of America, the one who led the South in its ultimately doomed effort to secede from the United States in a vain gambit to keep slavery legal.

Being a native of Richmond, Va. (that would be the former capital of said Confederacy) I found this to be an especially strange footnote of this city’s history. Am I the only one who thinks it odd he lived on Union Street?
One can assume Davis didn't sleep on the bench here...

During the U.S. Civil War Davis sent his family to live in Montreal, and even sent his sons to study at Bishop’s University (then known as Bishop’s College) in the Eastern Townships, according to on-line archives kept by Rice University. With slavery abolished after the war, he actually followed the same path of so many escaped slaves to settle in Montreal while awaited trial.
Look Away!

I caught my public time machine on the city’s orange line and travelled from the 19th Century into the 20th Century.

Avenue de Gaspé is a nondescript residential street on the northern end of town. It is far enough away from the heart of the city to almost have the feel of a suburb. Many a sporting hero has been made in the midst of low-slung homes and local taverns. A week ago, Montreal offered up Jackie Robinson.

Unlike the stately palace that housed Davis’ home, this house didn’t look palatial. And unlike Davis’ home, the plaque outside of it attracted a lot more attention.

Just before the Robinsons moved there for the 1946 season, they had gone through rough times while he was in spring training in Florida.

“We were still shaken from that experience and didn’t know what to expect in Montreal,” wrote Jackie’s wife Rachel, in an open letter she recently sent to David Jacobson, the U.S. Ambassador to Canada. The Dodgers’ president, Branch Rickey, wanted to break the unwritten rule, and staged Robinson’s splashdown to the majors by starting him out in Montreal. 

Robinson, from National Baseball Hall of Fame
“We couldn’t afford to fail,” she wrote.

There was some trepidation because the city’s neighbourhoods were mostly white. The Robinsons didn’t know any French, and few people there knew any English, but it didn’t keep folks from looking out for them. “When it became noticeable that summer that I was pregnant with our first child, the neighbours all started watching out for me, coming by to ask me how I was doing and bringing ration coupons,” she wrote. “That’s the kind of experience we had in Montreal.”

In Robinson’s first game on April 14, 1946, he knocked a three-run homerun, hit three singles and stole two bases, according to archives from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The Royals clobbered the Jersey City Giants that game 14-1, and the Royals won the league championship that year, the CBC wrote. He jumped to Brooklyn the next year and became the first rookie of the year in the major leagues – during one of only two seasons when it awarded one league-wide honour.

 “In the 1940s we were the exception,” standing next to Robinson's daughter Sharon Robinson, Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay told a crowd of journalists standing in a deluge of wintry mix. “Jackie Robinson’s story is not only a story of courage, but a story of dignity.” (As an aside, Tremblay proceeded to knock off all of the microphones on the podium and asked aloud “why does this always happen to me?”) 

Mayor Tremblay: good pitcher, but fielding needs work.

Somehow a family of Americans from the South who found no love in the states were treated like family in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language. In a nutshell I guess, that was the U.S. paradox during segregation.

The Montreal paradox is that the city was the exile home to the figurehead of the miserable institutions of the Old South; almost a century later it became the exile home to someone who became the face of integration in the states.  

A plaque that the United Daughters of the Confederacy put at Union and Sainte-Catherine hangs alone by one of the downtown’s busiest corners. Barely anyone even knows its there.

And if Jackie Robinson’s reputation were a building, the Montreal skyline would be dominated by a skyscraper rising out of a quiet neighbourhood at 8232 avenue de Gaspé.

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