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HalifaxYesterday : James Robinson Johnston, Barrister At Law (9 photos)

James Robinson Johnston was the first Black person from Nova Scotia to earn a Bachelor of Letters degree, the first to graduate from any university, and the first to practice law in Nova Scotia

When James Robinson Johnston, died on 3 March 1915, he was the most renown and respected African-Nova Scotian of his time. His career was unique in that he did not have to leave his native Halifax to achieve success in his chosen field. Endemic and institutionalized racism did not stand in the way of Johnston achieving his goals. He graduated with his peers from Dalhousie Law School - Class of 1896. He was the first Black person from Nova Scotia to earn a Bachelor of Letters degree, the first to graduate from any university, and the first to practice law in Nova Scotia. He was a popular community leader, affectionately known as “Lawyer Johnston.” But he was also the province’s only barrister to be murdered - shot to death at his home on Macara Street just nine days before he would have turned thirty-nine years old. (See Image 1 above)

James Robinson, the eldest of five sons, was born to William Johnston, a community leader and shoemaker by profession, and Elizabeth Ann (Thomas) Johnston on 12 March 1876. The family resided at 5 Gerrish Court [Lane]. Johnston’s maternal grandfather was a Welshman, Reverend James Thomas, white patriarch of the Black Baptists in Nova Scotia. His aunt was Louisa Ann Johnson, a successful retail businesswoman and ardent supporter of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, [2018, New Horizons Baptist Church]. A brilliant student with an outgoing personality, young James Johnston began his early education at Maynard Street School and later on at Albro Street School. Through a loophole in the Education Act, and at the urging of Dr. Benjamin Curren, the supervisor of the city’s Board of School Commissioners, the free public school system had become segregated - with separate and unequal institutions established for Black children. However, a provision established by the Commissioners allowed for one Black pupil, upon passing a Grade Seven level examination, to be admitted to the public schools. Johnston had no trouble passing the entrance exam and was one of Albro Street’s best students. After one and a half years, he moved on to high school at the Halifax Academy and graduated in 1892.

At sixteen years of age, he became the first native African-Nova Scotian to attend Dalhousie University. He matriculated by certificate in his first year without writing the examination, then chose the Bachelor of Letters course. Barry Cahill, a scholar who has researched and written about Mr. Johnston’s life, notes that the aspiring lawyer did not distinguish himself academically. As a reason for this, Cahill suggests that during the 1894-95 session, “he attempted to combine the junior and senior years of his Arts degree with the general and first-year undergraduate course in the Faculty of Law.“ Johnston graduated in 1896 with a Bachelor of Letters and in 1897, began his articled clerkship with Frank Weldon Russell, junior partner of the firm Russell & Russell. Frank’s father and senior partner, Benjamin Russell, was also Professor and Secretary of the Faculty of Law. The elder Russell, later a Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice, was involved in several high profile legal proceedings following the 1917 Halifax Explosion. (See Images 2, 3 and 4 above)

Just before he graduated from Dalhousie in April 1898 with a Bachelor of Laws, Johnston gained some initial experience in courtroom procedure by participating in mock trials conducted in the basement of Cornwallis Street Church. Another future alumnus of the explosion proceedings, fellow student and close friend of Johnston’s, Walter J. O’Hearn, also participated in these exercises. Four months after the end of his tenure with Frank Russell in March of 1900, Johnston was formally admitted to the bar on Wednesday, 18 July. He began his practice with John Thomas Bulmer, who apparently had recruited him while he was still with Russell. Bulmer strongly advocated for Black educational rights and had railed against Nova Scotia’s segregationist policies regarding schools twenty years before. But in February 1901, he died without leaving a will, which placed Johnston in a position to take over the Hollis Street practice and property.

He worked diligently from the A. B. C. [Adam Brown Crosby] Conservative Club in Ward 6 for the provincial party which was actively appealing the province’s school segregation laws. Judith Fingard writes of Johnston, “… he alone of the Halifax Black community was presented to royalty in 1901 when the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall visited the city. In return for personal recognition he was expected by his confrères in the Conservative party to deliver the Black vote and by his profession to represent derelict defendants when appointed to do so by the court.” In 1902, Johnston married Janie (Jennie) M. Allen, the 22 year-old daughter of a mechanic from Windsor Junction.

Although he believed it was essential to represent Blacks throughout Nova Scotia so to gain credibility within the legal profession, Johnston also represented members of white society. He travelled constantly - even outside the province to the United States. His client roster soon included the Halifax lodge of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, a large and powerful union of the day. Several years later, he represented the Intercolonial Railway. In addition to probate and property transfers, he specialized in military law and gained clientele by acting as defence counsel at military tribunals. Johnston defended clients in both civil and criminal cases in Police Court, Halifax County Court, and in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. He represented many poor Blacks from rural areas, and would often accept mortgages if payment was not forthcoming. He occasionally hired two of his brothers to clerk at his office.

From his early youth on, Johnston contributed much of his time and effort to his community and the infrastructure of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, assuming many associated duties, including Sunday School superintendent and conducting field missionary work. He, James Borden, Henry Sylvester Williams, and James A. R. Kinney co-founded the Colored Hockey League in 1895. Johnston became the secretary of the African Baptist Association in 1906. He was District Chief in the Order of the Good Templars, president of the Aetna Club, and a member of the Order of Oddfellows and the Freemasons. He lobbied with others for an agricultural and industrial school for young Blacks, and for the creation of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (founded, 1921). In 1908, Johnston decided to move his law office to 58 Bedford Row, sharing the building with barrister George Ritchie, who had been a lecturer at the Faculty of Law when the former was a student there. He and Janie had a son in 1910, but sadly, the child died of meningitis a year later. (See Images 6 and 7)

The apex of Johnston’s law career occurred in 1914 with his sole capital case, R. v. Murphy. He successfully defended a 25 year old Irish immigrant, James Murphy, accused of bludgeoning his grandmother-in-law to death. Through two trials, the first having ended in a hung jury, Johnston used skilled and powerful oratory to emphasize the fact there were no witnesses to the crime and only weak circumstantial evidence against his client. The second jury returned a verdict of Not Guilty after six hours deliberation. Unfortunately, Johnston did not live long enough to be appointed King’s Counsel. In the early part of the 20th century, a lawyer would have usually received a KC appointment after ten years of practice. But, as Cahill points out, in those days, politics and religion were synonymous. Thus, as a member of the opposition Tory Party, Robinson would simply not have been considered for this recognition by the Nova Scotia Liberal government which remained in power until 1925. A descendant, Justin Marcus Johnston, who wrote a book about Johnston in 2005, tried but was unsuccessful in his efforts to have the QC posthumously conferred on his great-uncle. (See Image 8 above)

The third of March 1915 saw the end of Johnston’s life and aspirations. His mercurial temper was known by many, and his thirteen year marriage had long shown signs of strain. As well, bad feelings had been simmering between Johnston and Harry Allen, Janie’s younger brother, during the months he had been boarding at their home. At one point after six o’clock that night, Allen confronted his brother-in-law with a .22 calibre revolver and shot him twice. Though bleeding profusely, Johnston chased Allen outside where the two men wrestled for the gun. Three more shots rang out and Johnston lay on the street, mortally wounded. Leaving the gun behind, Allen walked to the railway station to board the express train to Windsor Junction. He gave himself up shortly thereafter.

A preliminary hearing was followed by an inquiry which led to Allen’s trial three weeks later. Following presentation of all available evidence, the jury deliberated for only twenty minutes before reaching a guilty verdict. However, because of judicial error and errant activity on the part of a juror, a mistrial was declared and a new trial ordered. The jury at that proceeding also returned a guilty verdict, and Allen was sentenced to be hanged on 12 January 1916. Twelve days before the scheduled execution, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He served fourteen years at Dorchester Penitentiary, receiving parole in 1929. Harry Allen died in July of 1935. No true motive for the crime had ever been established.

Johnston’s funeral took place on the afternoon of Sunday, 7 March 1915. The huge scale of the event had not been seen since the interment of Prime Minister Sir John S. D. Thompson in 1895. Thousands of people from both the Black and white communities turned out to pay their respects at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church where Johnston’s body lay in state. Prominent guests spoke at the burial service and tributes were read via telegram, including a message from Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the president of the Barristers’ Society when Johnston became a lawyer. Three carriages were required to transport the casket and the copious amount of floral tributes to Camp Hill Cemetery. A memorial service took place at the church later that evening. James Robinson Johnston’s epitaph reads simply: “Gone but not forgotten.”

Cahill writes: “Johnston left no biological or psychological heir. His name was not perpetuated even within his own family, much less the community; his example was not emulated; and - until the creation of Dalhousie’s eponymous professional chair - his name was not inscribed elsewhere than his own gravestone.” Even so, the establishment of the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies in 1991 has insured that his name will not be forgotten.

It is worth noting that Lawyer Johnston’s professional career and legacy also share a few interesting similarities to those of Burnley Allan “Rocky” Jones (1941-2013). Jones was a strong-voiced organizer within the Black community, well-known politician and educator, civil and human rights activist for decades, and expert on environmental racism. He received his law degree from Dalhousie University in 1992 at age 51 and worked with Dalhousie Legal Aid for several years before starting his own law firm. (See Image 9 above)

Jones’s enduring legacy includes his successful argument before the Supreme Court of Canada in a precedent setting appeal regarding apprehension of bias within the court system, R. v. S. (R.D.), [1997] 3 SRC 484. Ultimately, the Court handed down a leading decision. A forthcoming book by Canadian legal scholar and historian Constance Backhouse delves into this very important case.

Sources: Barry Cahill, "The "Colored Barrister: The Short Life and Tragic Death of James Robinson Johnston, 1876-1915" (1992) 15:2 Dal LJ 336; Judith Fingard, “Johnston, James Robinson,” (2003) Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval; Various Internet resources. For more information on R. v. S. (R.D.), [1997] 3 SRC 484:

Please Note: Controversy surrounding James Robinson Johnston arose only after his death. Allegations of spousal abuse were brought out by an aggressive defence lawyer at Harry Allen's trial in an unsuccessful attempt to provide a motive for his crime. Even though the outcome of the legal proceedings was unaffected and the jury returned a guilty verdict, the Black community rallied around Allen to save his life. The embarrassment of Johnston's death resulted in his name being forgotten for decades. The allegations have never been substantiated. - JHZ

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