Arts & Life
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This article was published 8/2/2015 (2088 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Most people who are familiar with the name Percy Haynes likely remember him for Haynes Chicken Shack, the longtime restaurant and musical hot spot he and wife, Zena, operated on Lulu Street for more than 35 years.
That was just one chapter of his remarkable life, and Black History Month seems like a good time to re-examine it.
Piercy Augustus Haynes was born in what was then called British Guiana in 1911 and came to Winnipeg with his parents the following year. The family settled at 257 Lulu St., a small cottage-style house off Logan Avenue, where they raised sons Alan (Chick), Clifford, Piercy (Percy) and Abram. The site also doubled as a workshop for William Haynes, Percy's father, who was a carpenter.
Percy Haynes attended Pinkham and Hugh John MacDonald schools and was a youth leader at MacLean United Church Mission, located on Alexander Avenue at Lulu. Aside from being a noted pianist, Haynes also excelled at sports. He is first mentioned in the local media in a 1925 Manitoba Free Press article after wowing onlookers at a summer athletics camp in Gimli, which noted he "was an easy first in nearly every event he tried."
With his all-around athletic abilities, Haynes joined a couple of track-and-field teams and in 1928 was a member of the Stella Mission's athletics team nicknamed "the Olympics," which won the Dominion teen athletics championship. In 1929, he coached the MacLean United Mission athletics team to the provincial Sunday school athletics championship.
As he grew out of the youth athletics scene, Haynes turned his attention to other sports, such as boxing, softball and basketball. He excelled at them all. He was a member of the Winnipeg Stellars basketball team that won the 1932 Dominion amateur basketball championship. He was also a noted softball pitcher, leading a number of teams to city playoffs and championships.
Boxing brought Haynes the most attention. He was the city's amateur welterweight champion in 1933 and 1934. Arguably his most famous fight took place in April 1934 ,when he faced Dominion and international welterweight champion Maurice Camyré. For the first two rounds, Haynes dodged the champ's body blows and peppered him with lefts, which led to a hard-fought third and final round. Haynes won by decision.
After the bout, a Winnipeg Tribune sports columnist mentioned to Camyré that Haynes was also a well-known local baseball player and pianist. The boxer replied: "He doesn't look fragile nor gentle when you get close up, but there's no denying he's artistic."
Through the 1930s, Haynes juggled his busy sports schedule around his day job as a carpenter. He also found time for his music. At a New Year's Eve gig in 1932, he met Zena Bradshaw, a jazz singer who had recently relocated from Edmonton with her stepson. The two became a fixture on the club scene and married in 1943.
During the Second World War, Haynes, like many of his peers, wanted to enlist with the Royal Canadian Navy at HMCS Chippawa. When he showed up at the recruiting station, however, he was turned away because he was black. It was suggested to him he might want to go to the army recruitment centre instead, because they accepted men of colour.
Haynes refused to take no for an answer. Decades later, he told a Free Press reporter, "I went to the top. I wrote to the admiral of the navy, and I told him exactly what I felt about it."
That admiral was actually naval secretary Angus L. McDonald.
McDonald wrote back, saying the regulation was in place because the confines of ship life were considered an "unsafe place" for men of colour. Haynes responded to McDonald, as well as other navy brass and politicians, pointing out the ridiculousness of the rule. A few months later, he received a followup letter from McDonald inviting him to return to the HMCS Chippawa recruiting centre, where he would be allowed to apply.
Haynes was accepted and became the first black man to serve in the modern Royal Canadian Navy. (William Hall, who joined the British navy in Halifax in 1852, is often considered the first to serve in a Canadian navy.)
Petty Officer Haynes worked as a shipwright but never went to sea. His skills as a composer and entertainer kept him in Halifax entertaining troops and staging musical shows. For a time, Zena relocated there, and they performed together. Haynes was also a sometimes member of the travelling cast of Meet the Navy, a musical revue show that played for troops and civilians across Canada and the United Kingdom. In 1945, a movie version of the show was filmed in Britain, with Haynes appearing as both a musician and actor.
After the war, Haynes did not go back to carpentry. Instead, he took a job as a CPR sleeping-car porter. He worked the rails for more than 20 years, becoming involved in the Porters' Club, then with the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees, to improve the working conditions of black railway workers. He also resumed his musical career and pitched for a number of teams in the commercial softball league.
In the summer of 1952, the carpentry shop attached to the Haynes family's Lulu Street home was converted into a small restaurant called Haynes Chicken Shack. It was Zena's dream to one day run a restaurant, and she recruited her sister, Alva Mayes, a local cook already famous for her fried chicken, to manage the kitchen. Haynes noted the home was already the scene of many late-night jam sessions where the family put out a generous spread of food for their visitors, and, "We figured we might as well get paid for it."
Zena's restaurant was a hit, and after Haynes retired from the CPR in the late 1960s, the couple performed there regularly, furthering its reputation as a musical hot spot.
Over the years, musical greats such as Billy Daniels, Oscar Peterson and Harry Belafonte visited when they were in town. The influence rubbed off on Zena's son, Del Wagner, who become a popular bandleader and musician in his own right.
The restaurant was expanded to hold the larger crowds. At the peak of its popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, you could expect to wait in line for an hour, even two, to get a seat on a Friday or Saturday night.
In retirement, Haynes turned his attention to community activities. A longtime Mason, in the late 1960s he was elected twice as the Grandmaster of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Minnesota, which at the time included Manitoba. He also became a respected community activist, bringing attention to the increasingly poor condition of the housing stock in the core area of the city. Mayor Stephen Juba presented him with a community service award for his efforts. Haynes also ran, unsuccessfully, for the provincial Liberals in 1977 and for city council in 1980.
Zena Haynes died in 1990, but the restaurant carried on. Haynes worked there as a greeter until a week before his death from colon cancer on July 24, 1992. He was 81 years old.
Debbie Johnson, a longtime employee, and her husband, Louis Brown, bought the restaurant from Haynes' estate in 1993. The restaurant, however, had been all about Percy and Zena Haynes. Despite using the same recipes and hiring musicians to play on the weekends, the crowds dwindled, and Haynes Chicken Shack closed its doors for good in 1996.
Christian Cassidy explores local history at his blog West End Dumplings and his radio show of the same name, Sunday nights on 101.5 UMFM.
Christian Cassidy believes that every building has a great story - or ten - to tell.
Updated on Monday, November 7, 2016 at 9:53 AM CST: Corrects that Piercy was twice elected Grandmaster of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Minnesota
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