Portia May White was born in 1911 in Truro, Nova Scotia, the third of 13 children born to Izie Dora and William Andrew White. Her mother was a descendant of Black Loyalists, while her father was the son of former slaves from Virginia, and on his graduation from Acadia University in Nova Scotia in 1903, he became the university's first black graduate. He later became the minister of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, where Izie Dora White was the musical director. White began her musical career there as a choir member at the age of six.
Many members of White's family achieved fame in Canadian cultural and political life. Her brother Bill was the first Canadian of African heritage to run for political office in Canada, standing as a candidate for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in the 1949 election, and her brother Jack was a noted Canadian labour union leader. Portia White was the aunt of politician Sheila White, folk musician Chris White, Senator Donald Oliver and playwright George Elliott Clarke.
Portia White entered Dalhousie University in 1929, and from the early 1930s taught in Africville, a small seaside community in Halifax, largely populated by Black Nova Scotians. She won a scholarship to continue her musical training at the Halifax Conservatory of Music in 1939 with noted Italian baritone Ernesto Vinci.
White made her national debut as a singer in Toronto in 1941, and her international debut in New York City in 1944. A three-month tour of Central and South America followed in 1946, and she sang in France and Switzerland in 1948. White sang both classical European music and Negro spirituals. Critics responded favourably to her voice. Hector Charlesworth's review in the Toronto Globe and Mail observed, "she sings Negro spirituals with pungent expression and beauty of utterance", while Edward Wodson writing in the Toronto Evening Telegram said White had a "coloured and beautifully shaded contralto all the way. ... It is a natural voice, a gift from heaven."
Vocal problems later forced her to retire from singing in 1952, and she settled in Toronto, where she taught some of Canada's foremost singers of the day. White briefly left retirement to perform for Queen Elizabeth II, at the opening of the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in 1964. This was to be one of her last major concerts.
She died in Toronto on February 13, 1968, at the age of 56, following a long battle with cancer.
White has been declared "a person of national historic significance" by the Government of Canada, and she was featured in a special issue of Millennium postage stamps celebrating Canadian achievement. The Nova Scotia Talent Trust was created in her honour, as was the Portia White Prize.
In Halifax she is the namesake of Portia White Court, a street, as well as the Portia White Atrium in Citadel High School.
A play about her life, Portia White - First You Dream, by Lance Woolaver, has been presented several times, most recently in Petrolia, Ontario. Think on Me. 1968. White House Records WH-6901
Great Voices of Canada, Vol 5. White et al. Analekta AN 2 7806
First You Dream. 1999. C. White W001-2
Library and Archives Canada also holds audio recordings of White's live performances.