HalifaxYesterday: Carrie M. Best – Journalist, Publisher and Human Rights Advocate (6 photos)

By Joel Zemel

Carrie Best (1903-2001) knew all too well about the damaging effects of racist policies. She and her son, James Calbert Best, co-founded The Clarion in 1946. The publication was incorporated a year later and Carrie Best took on the role of editor. James would go on to become Canada’s first Black assistant deputy minister and later, High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago. Directly beneath the New Glasgow, Nova Scotia newspaper’s bold type logo were printed the words “Published in the Interest of Colored Nova Scotians.” The Clarion started as a church-based single-sheet released every two weeks and later became a multi-page publication. The paper went national in August of 1949 as The Negro Citizen. (See Image 1 above)

Carrie Mae Prevoe grew up in New Glasgow during an era of racial discrimination and segregation but her parents made certain she and her two brothers were aware of their proud heritage and that they should always offer resistance to a culture that treats
or labels African Canadians as inferior. Her mother, who could not read or write, placed an emphasis on the need for a good education. Carrie loved reading poetry and spent much of her time seeking out the works of African American poets like Paul Lawrence Dunbar as well as those of historian W. E. B. Du Bois and many others.

Her mother had long instructed her in “the housekeeping arts,” but after completing high school, Carrie had already decided that domestic service was not going to be her livelihood. She thought about becoming a nurse – requiring a move to the United States
– or a teacher, but chose to get married instead. In 1925, she wed Albert Theophilus Best, a Canadian National Railway porter from Barbados. The couple had one son and four adopted children. Carrie Best’s abilities as a fearless advocate for basic universal
human rights was about to be brought to the fore.

The Roseland Theatre was the New Glasgow’s only movie house. The owner, a former three-time mayor of the town named Norman Mason, decided to respond to complaints from some of his his white patrons that Black moviegoers should be asked to sit in the balcony away from the main auditorium. He instructed his staff to implement this new seating policy in December of 1941. This was followed by an incident involving several Black high school girls who were forcibly removed from the “white section” of the theatre. (See Image 2 above)

Upon hearing of this, Carrie Best took action and wrote a scathing letter to Mason which read in part:

“I will ask, no I will demand to be given the same rights as the Chinese and other nationalities of the Dominion of Canada and today I speak for my family only… I respectfully request you, Sir, to instruct your employees to sell me the ticket I wish when next I come to the theatre or I shall make public every statement made by you and your help; of negroes being dirty, smelly etc. And of you taking it upon yourself to evict high school girls of irreproachable character from your office… If you wish a public controversy both pro and con as to whether you have the power of a dictator to decide in a British town who is a citizen and who isn’t, you can have it… I am coming to the theatre on Monday.”

Best went with her son, James Calbert, to the Roseland Theatre with the intention of confronting the owner and insisting that these discriminatory policies be dropped. Mother and son left their tickets behind with the cashier and took their seats on the main floor. Best was asked by the assistant manager to leave, but she refused saying: “I am inside now. Put me out. When she refused after being asked twice more to leave the theatre, the police were called in and the Bests were forcibly removed. When the police officer extricated Best from her seat, she stated: “That’s all I wanted you to do, put your hands on me. I will fix you for this.” She and James Calbert then proceeded to walk out of the theatre on their own.

Until 1947, there were no Canadian statutes that prohibited racial segregation in public venues. Carrie Best hired a local lawyer, James Hennigar Power, and took civil action against Mason and his company for just over $5,500, claiming racial discrimination, assault and battery, breach of contract and compensation for a torn coat. The fact that Carrie Best was described as “a Negress” in the complaint, placed race at the forefront of this case. This designation had been downplayed in previous proceedings. The theatre’s lawyer, Edward Mortimore Macdonald Jr, also from the area, lodged a counter-claim of trespassing because the pair left their tickets with the cashier.

On 12 May 1942, Judge Robert Henry Graham of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia heard the case. Ironically, Best’s mother had worked as a domestic for the justice when he was a lawyer working in New Glasgow many years before. After all of the evidence had been presented, Judge Graham instructed the jury that “the management had the right to exclude anyone from the theatre… as any ordinary citizen has the right to exclude anyone from their home unless a contract has been entered into,” and that all else was “irrelevant.” The judge dismissed the case and ordered Best to pay Mason’s costs.

In order to address such pervasive, systemic racism, Best formulated the idea of becoming a journalist and four years later, started the newspaper. Carrie Best used her position as publisher to strongly advocate for the rights of Indigenous people and Black Nova Scotians. Five years later in December of 1946,The Clarion featured as its first front page story, the arrest and fining ($26) of a Halifax beautician, Mrs. Viola Desmond. Her crime: sitting downstairs in the Roseland Theatre while holding an upstairs ticket; basically accused of defrauding the federal government of one cent, the difference in the amusement tax between the upstairs (2 cents) and downstairs ticket (3 cents). (See Image 3 above)

Mrs. Desmond, who was unfamiliar with the segregationist policies which existed in New Glasgow had been asked by the manager to leave the “whites only” section of the theatre. When she refused, she was physically dragged out by the police, injured in the
process, and made to spend the night in the local jail. Mrs. Desmond’s lawyer, F. W. Bisset, subsequently served a writ against the manager of the theatre, Henry MacNeil, charging false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and malicious prosecution. Best denounced the incident as “disgraceful,” stating that “New Glasgow stands for Jim-crowism at its basest.” The Clarion called for donations to help Desmond with her legal costs. An appeal was held in Halifax on 27 December but the Nova Scotia Supreme
Court dismissed the case. It was probably akin to adding insult to injury when Best learned that one of the five sitting justices on the panel assigned to the case had been Judge Graham. (See Image 4 above)

Carrie Best continued her career at the newspaper until 1956. However, four years earlier, she had turned some of her attention to radio broadcasting. She began hosting her own program, The Quiet Corner at CFCY in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
The show consisted primarily of organ music and poetry readings with occasional announcements, and remained on the air until 1964. Best received a Bachelor of Arts degree from King’s College in 1963, and completed her Bachelor of Education at Dalhousie University. (See Image 5 above)

Best began writing a weekly column in 1968 for the Pictou Advocate entitled Human Rights. She became a champion for Aboriginal rights and called for improved living conditions on reserves. In her continuing role as a social activist, Carrie Best investigated and wrote in her column about Black homeowners in New Glasgow who were so overtaxed, they would eventually be left with no choice but to sell their properties so new development could take place. Best’s articles formed the basis of a detailed report that she would submit to the Human Rights Commission. She founded the Kay Livingstone Visible Minority Women’s Society in 1975 to further education for Black women. In 1977, Best wrote her autobiography entitled That Lonesome Road: The Autobiography of Carrie M. Best.

Carrie Best was awarded many honours during her lifetime: The Lloyd McInnes Award for her work in social justice (1970), the first annual award from the National Black Coalition of Canada. The Order of Canada (1974), an honorary doctor of laws (LLD) from St. Francis Xavier University (1975), promotion to Officer of the Order of Canada (1979), and in December 1991, she received an award for outstanding contribution to human rights on the anniversary of the day the United Nations ratified the Declaration of Human Rights.

While serving on the Board of Governors of Mount Saint Vincent University, Best was given an honorary doctor of civil law (DCL) from King’s College in 1992. King’s also offers The Carrie Best Scholarship, an undergraduate scholarship for African Canadians
and Canadian Aboriginal students. On being awarded her honorary degree from King’s College, she stated: “King’s is setting a standard for recognition. The power to see straight is not one to be ignored. It’s to open the eyes of the blind.”

Carrie Mae Best died at home in her sleep on 24 July 2001. She was awarded the Order of Nova Scotia posthumously in 2002. A stamp honouring her memory was issued by Canada Post Corporation in 2011. (See Image 6 above)

Sources: “I was Unable to Identify with Topsy” Carrie M. Best’s Struggle Against Racial Segregation in Nova Scotia, 1942, Constance Backhouse, Atlantis, Volume 22.2 Spring/Summer 1998; Carrie Best, Susanna McLeod,The Canadian Encyclopedia;
Nova Scotia Archives; Tidings, Spring 1992, King’s College.

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