The "Colored Barrister": The Short Life and Tragic Death of James Robinson Johnston, 1876-1915
James Robinson Johnston, Nova Scotia, Canada, lawyer, Halifax, Dalhousie University, legal history, murder
The mortal remains of James Robinson Johnston, Nova Scotia's first Black lawyer, lie buried in the family plot at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax. The gravestone epigraphy records that he was a Good Templar, a Freemason and an Oddfellow; his Dalhousie University degrees (one of them inaccurately); and the fact that he died a mere nine days short of his thirty-ninth birthday. "Gone but not forgotten" reads the epitaph, much less ironically now - in view of the fact that the recently established Chair in Black Canadian Studies at his alma mater has been named in Johnston's honour-than it ever could have done during the previous seventy-five years following his death. Johnston's funeral, on Sunday afternoon, 7 March 1915, was the largest Halifax had witnessed since that of Prime Minister Sir John S. D. Thompson twenty years before. So great was the popular feeling in the community that as many as 10,000 people, Blacks and whites together, attended. Johnston's body lay in state in Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, where three generations of his family had worshipped and his maternal grandfather had pastored. Among the platform guests were EdwinD. King, K.C., dean of the practisingbar (and a trustee of the church), representing the Nova Scotia Barristers' Society, and the Rev. Dr. John Forrest, who had been president of Dalhousie University when Johnston was a student there. Telegrams were read from Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, who had been president of the Barristers' Society when Johnston was admitted to the bar, and from the Rev. Dr. William Harvey Goler, president of Livingstone College, Salisbury, North Carolina. (Goler was a native Halifax Black who had become a leading African Methodist Episcopal Zion clergyman in the United States, who frequently revisited the city of his birth, and who also was a member of Johnston's masonic lodge.) The casket was so burdened with floral tributes that it took three carriages to convey them to the cemetery. James R. Johnston, the most prominent and influential Afro- Nova Scotian of his time, was also the only member of the Nova Scotia bar ever to have been murdered. How did such a man meet with such a fate?
Barry Cahill, "The "Colored Barrister": The Short Life and Tragic Death of James Robinson Johnston, 1876-1915" (1992) 15:2 Dal LJ 336.