Long before Vancouver became a hockey-crazed town, local sports fans went wild over Canada’s national sport, lacrosse. Although indigenous to Canada, the game was an import to the west coast from the east. The first match in BC took place in Victoria on 28 August 1886. Vancouver won that one against Victoria, and by 1890, a fierce rivalry had developed between Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster lacrosse clubs.
In the early days, Vancouver’s biggest lacrosse booster was Al Larwill. His cabin at the northeast corner of the Cambie Street Grounds (renamed Larwill Park in the 1940s) was a focal point for lacrosse and other sports. One of Larwill’s star lacrosse players was a young black man named Elijah “Lige” Scurry. By all accounts Scurry was extremely fast and played very aggressively in what was then a very violent sport. In one game in 1891 for example, the Victoria Daily Colonist reported that
Allen of Westminster, was badly shaken up by a body check from Scurry, of the Vancouvers. He was carried off the field on a door, and two ladies in the grand stand fainted at the sight, and also had to be removed. He will be laid up for some weeks … Swifter deliberately fouled Ryal, and was ruled off for that; the game coming on again, Caldwell checked Draper rather too sharply, and had his ear split from top to bottom. Draper had his lip split so badly that he had to be removed to a surgeon’s office to have it stitched and dressed.
A Sun reporter wrote in the 1952 about another incident in the early days of field lacrosse that involved the Vancouver coach firing his pistol into the crowd at a game in New Westminster after they pelted him with rotten eggs.
Hockey legend and former lacrosse player Fred “Cyclone” Taylor recalled that the violence extended to the fans as well. “If you sat in a New Westminster section and cheered for Vancouver,” he said, “you were taking your life into your own hands … The ladies were extremely emotional and used to fight all the time.”
Although Lige Scurry contributed more than his share to the sometimes vicious competition on the field, that same rivalry saw him barred from the game. With Victoria and New Westminster holding the balance of power on the BC Amateur Lacrosse Association, the organization passed a resolution to not “allow the playing of Indian or colored athletes in any match” at its October 1892 meeting. It was a decision motivated by stiff competition rather than racial hatred, and one that conveniently ended the lacrosse career of one of Vancouver’s best players.
Lacrosse teams, in Ontario at least, circumvented the colour bar by recruiting “ringers,” Mohawk players who could pass for white.
After Scurry was booted out of the game, New Westminster became the dominant lacrosse team in BC in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Vancouver’s lacrosse fortunes returned through the efforts of Con Jones, a major figure in the local sports scene who successfully undermined the amateur status of the game by luring top lacrosse players from the east with lucrative contracts. Probably the most famous was another hockey legend, Newsy Lalonde, who reportedly received $3500 to come to Vancouver. The strategy worked, and in 1911, Con Jones’s dream team won both the Minto and Mann cups.
Somewhere along the line, the colour bar was dropped or forgotten. By the 1930s, a new team on the BC lacrosse scene, the North Shore Indians, was routinely beating established white teams under the leadership of Andy Paull.
Lige Scurry’s contribution to lacrosse, meanwhile, had been completely forgotten by the 1950s. The Vancouver Sun reported in 1952 that the signing of 17 year-old Ivan Stewart to the New Westminster Commandos lacrosse team was a first. Old timers searched their memories, Merv Peters wrote in 1952, and “they all came to the same conclusion: Stewart will be the first of his race to play senior lacrosse in Canada.” Peters no doubt had simply never heard of Lige Scurry. Nevertheless, this omission allowed him to present the story as one of a young negro finally rising to unprecedented heights in the world of lacrosse instead of one in which whites actively kicked non-whites out of the sport.
So what became of Lige Scurry? He worked as a barber and tobacconist, and in 1904 opened the Railway Porters’ Club on the second and third floors of 107 East Hastings. It was intended as a social club for blacks in the city, many of whom worked as sleeping car porters. There was a bar, dining room, and rooms upstairs that could be rented out.
Unfortunately for Scurry, his club opened just at a time when the City was getting suspicious of clubs that weren’t necessarily functioning as they were supposed to. Chief Constable Sam North toured the clubs on 22 March 1904 so that he could report back to City Council on the situation. About Scurry’s club he wrote:
We next visited the quarters of the Railway Porters’ Club on Hastings street east and found that everything was torn up about the building and the club not running at present until their new quarters will be fit to occupy. It seems to be merely a home for the railway porters while at this end of the line, beds, room and board being furnished.
Police again visited the Railway Porters’ Club in September, this time declaring it a fake. It was a nice enough place, according to the Province: “Its dozen or more handsomely-fitted rooms include billiard and card parlors, and a bar sumptuously furnished. It is said to be the headquarters of a large number of the colored population of the city.”
Detectives Waddell and Jackson, however, weren’t as impressed with the clientele. They visited the club because a man they charged with being a “loose, idle person, living without employment, etc.” had been living there. Waddell told the court that the Railway Porters’ Club “is a place well known as the resort of sporting women … Some of the women who were before the court recently and fined are parties who frequent this club, as they call it.”
Detective Jackson chimed in claiming to have obtained the names of railway porters from the CPR and that he wasn’t able “to find one that goes near this club … Why, I’ve seen women, colored women, too, going up and down those stairs, dozens at a time. I know men who stay around Dupont street who hang around there and go up and down.” (At the time, Dupont Street, today’s East Pender, was the red light district; “sporting women” was a euphemism for prostitutes).
And so at 4 o’clock on the morning of 9 December 1904, “a large posse of police smashed in the front and back doors simultaneously and twenty-one inmates were arrested, four of them being women, all colored,” according to the Victoria Daily Colonist. “The police claim the club is a resort of tough characters.”
The “tough characters” found at the Railway Porters’ Club were all released because there was no evidence that they had committed any crimes on the premises. Lige Scurry, on the other hand, was tried for keeping a disorderly house.
Scurry’s lawyer, JA Russell, based his arguments on the seemingly obvious point that immoral people are not illegal, only immoral behaviour. Just because prostitutes frequented the club didn’t make it a house of prostitution since no prostitution actually took place there. In fact, neither the police nor anyone else were suggesting that the club operated as a bordello. Men rented rooms on the top floor, but women were not allowed up there.
Moreover, Russell explained, if it wasn’t okay to allow prostitutes in the club, the police could have just told Scurry that instead of kicking in his doors at four in the morning.
The women went to Scurry’s premises merely for the innocent purpose of getting their meals in a house that was open to colored people and to colored people only … All classes of people in Vancouver had their various resorts. For the well-to-do there were the better class clubs. For those who liked that sort of thing there were various tea rooms, and for those who were inclined that way there were the Y.M.C.A. and the Y.W.C.A.
The need for a blacks-only club was because “there was a prejudice against colored people in the restaurants and hotels of the city,” Russell argued, “for which reason they were led to establish such institutions as the Railway Porters’ Club.” The judge said he wasn’t aware of any such prejudice, and in any case, “the court drew no such distinction.”
The judge refused to get bogged down on whether or not prostitution actually occurred at the club. Instead, he ruled against Scurry and sentenced him to three months hard labour and a $50 fine. Although the charge was keeping a house for the resort of prostitutes, the basis of his decision was that prostitutes rather than railway porters were the main customers at his club, and that he was selling liquor there without a license:
I am firmly of the opinion that the place complained of is a resort for prostitutes, and also that it is kept by Scurry. I do not think it is at all necessary that prostitution should be actually carried on there. It seems to me that it is a flagrant abuse of privileges. Scurry has kept that place under certificate as a club, and has allowed prostitutes to come there, and besides that has been selling liquor there without a license, and so interfering with the business of others who pay large fees for that privilege.
It’s impossible to gauge exactly how much race influenced the judge’s decision. However, other clubs were also shut down that year for not functioning according to their club licenses. The Vancouver Chess Club, for example, was allegedly a gambling den with no chess boards in sight. In that case as well, the decision to shut it down was informed at least in part by the fact that “the Club was frequented by all classes of men and by men of different races, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Negroes.”
Elijah Scurry died in Vancouver on 12 May 1924 at the age of 52. His obituary noted that he was “one of the fastest men the game of lacrosse ever saw” and “an undoubted star” when he played for Vancouver in the 1890s.