James Robinson Johnston: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Nova Scotia's First Black Lawyer


85 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography
ISBN 1-55109-509-2
DDC 340'.092





Reviewed by Nanette Morton

Nanette Morton teaches English at McMaster University in Hamilton.


Although the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at
Dalhousie University was named in his honour, little is known about the
man who became Nova Scotia’s first African-Canadian lawyer. Why was
Johnston condemned to obscurity? In spite of the fact that most Nova
Scotia schools were officially segregated at the time, Johnston was a
popular and successful student at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Law. Called
to the bar on June 18, 1900, he did not restrict himself to black
clients as expected; rather, his clients were “black and white, rich
and poor,” and their cases were often controversial. He lost only one
major case.

Johnston was also active in the community. An officer of the Cornwallis
Street Baptist Church, he played an influential part in the congress of
churches known as the African Baptist Association, eventually becoming
the association’s secretary. He was also a member of several fraternal
orders. Believing that education would turn the African-Canadian
community into a prosperous one, he supported more than one school

Johnston’s life was cut short, however, when he was murdered by his
brother-in-law, Harry Allen, during an argument. Though Allen confessed,
he was tried twice. His death sentence commuted, he served only 14

The author speculates that the black community’s own quest for
respectability led it to consign Johnston to oblivion. Though Johnston
was unarmed, and though the two had recently quarrelled about an
unrelated matter, Allen pleaded self-defence, claiming that Johnston was
guilty of spousal abuse. The allegation may have been cooked up to help
Allen avoid the gallows, but it lived up to a stereotype of black men
commonly held at the time and overshadowed Johnston’s reputation.

In using the meagre evidence left to recover Johnston’s story, the
author shows what Nova Scotia’s African-Canadian community lost. While
the book begins briefly placing Johnston’s story in historical
context, readers needing more historical material should consult general
studies of African-Canadian history in Nova Scotia.


Johnston, Justin Marcus., “James Robinson Johnston: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Nova Scotia's First Black Lawyer,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 20, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/15543.