James Robinson Johnston

Paths to the Law in Late-Victorian Africadia: The Odyssey of James Robinson Johnston

By Barry Cahill

James Robinson JohnstonIn September 1893, a young school teacher from Trinidad, Henry Sylvester Williams – afterwards known to the African Diaspora as the founding father of Pan-Africanism – arrived at Dalhousie Law School. His time there as a student was brief and unsuccessful; within a year or two he had departed for London where in 1902 he was called to the English Bar. During his sojourn at Dalhousie, Williams could hardly have been unaware of the only other person of African descent studying there.

James R. Johnston, nine years younger than Williams and only the second native-born Black person to attend a provincial university, was entering the second year of his Bachelor of Letters course. (That was the BA equivalent, modern European languages taking the place of classical Greek and Latin.) It seems probable that Williams and Johnston, despite the difference in their ages, would have met and discussed their hopes and plans for the future.

Johnston, the son of an old and distinguished African Nova Scotian family from the North suburbs of Halifax, was Dalhousie’s first Black graduate; yet it seems unlikely that he went to university at age 16 consciously intending to become a lawyer. It is far more likely that Williams’s example and experience planted the idea in Johnston’s mind. Better educated than the older man (who lacked a university degree), Johnston entered Dalhousie Law School at a time when it had no academic requirements for admission other than junior matriculation.

In the 1890s, “Dalhousie’s little law school” was something of a cross between academic faculty and vocational school. The Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society had not been involved in its establishment in 1883 except incidentally: one of the school’s promoters and founders was Attorney General John S.D. Thompson, President of the Society at the time. The Society’s indifference, if not hostility to university legal education prompted a complaint from LLB candidates in 1894 that the governing Council of the Society did not take Dalhousie’s faculty of law seriously.

Most lawyers in Nova Scotia then did not possess the LLB, which neither substituted for articled clerkship nor was required or sufficient for call to the Bar. The LLB simply augmented the existing customary system of apprenticeship to a practising barrister. It was not a qualification, much less a prerequisite, for becoming a lawyer. It was not even recognized by the Society until 1893. The most the LLB could do was reduce articled clerkship from four years to three. Sceptical local lawyers, some of whom held LLBs from Harvard, wondered how Dalhousie’s LLB could deliver effective legal education if law school admission standards were so low. The minimum academic requirement for admission was junior matriculation (Grade XI), which was also the university’s entrance standard.

Yet Dalhousie’s faculty of law reflected what university historian P.B. Waite has described as Dalhousie’s “maturing confidence”: “in the 1890s [the Law School] set about its task of imbuing its students with the idea of duty to the public and the state with becoming modesty.” The school’s ethos would have resonated with both Williams and Johnston. It even resonated with the professors. In 1896 the dean of the faculty ceased to be an MP after nine years while the secretary of the faculty became one.

Johnston’s first exposure to the law school came during the junior year of his Letters course, 1894-95. He attended classes as a “general” (that is, an auditing or non-degree student). By the time he graduated BL in April 1896, he had made up his mind to go to law school and become a lawyer. The BL graduates were few in number by comparison with the BA – only Johnston and two young women. The Convocation address to graduates that year was delivered by Benjamin Russell, professor and secretary of the faculty of law. “One feature of this convocation which is remarkable,” Russell stated, “is that one of the class is a coloured young man, the first in the history of Dalhousie – J.R. Johnston of this city. He has been a good student all through and has honourably won his degree. Mr Johnston has more than ordinary ability and will doubtless make his mark in the legal profession upon which he intends entering.”

The class biography was less respectful but more candid and playful:

Jimmie Johnston loved notoriety and got it. He didn’t aspire for classes, however, so in that field alone he missed his desire; but to this Halifax youth their phenomenal scarceness was perhaps a fame in itself. Jimmie had a silvery voice and a laugh that bubbled often and long upon the ears of the straining pluggers in the Arts library. He has entered upon the study of law and his fellows have offered a reward to any genius who has inventive powers enough to devise some means which may be successful in fixing Jimmie’s attention upon one thing and one person for a brief period per day. Long may he live to be the chosen pleader for his race in the police court of the city.

The subconsciously racist narrative provokes interest. Though most of Johnston’s clients would be the criminally accused, the proceedings would lie in the Supreme Court, not in the equivalent of today’s Provincial Court, and many of them were not Black clients but lower- or lower middle-class white people. He knew what was expected of him, but he was determined to defy expectations. And he did.

In September 1896, Johnston went directly into the second year of the law degree program. Combining the courses of first and second year not only demonstrates his ambitious precocity but helps explain why he did not distinguish himself academically. A young man in perhaps too great a hurry, he had to study some combination of real property, criminal law, contract, torts, constitutional history and law, equity jurisprudence, partnership and companies, “Negotiable Instruments,” conflict of laws, and shipping and insurance. Among Johnston’s contemporaries that year was one Max Aitken, better known to the world as Lord Beaverbrook; he lasted no longer at Dalhousie Law School than Williams had.

The class was 54 strong, a large increase over previous years; only 15 were from Halifax, which shows how the law school’s reputation had spread well beyond the metropolitan area and throughout province and region. According to the Herald, the law students met on Saturday evening, September 5, “and reorganized for the coming session. It was decided to have a mock [Model] Parliament as usual this year and Robert F. Phelan was elected Speaker thereof ... A law students society is to be formed, and Richard O’Donoghue, James Dunn and John C. O’Mullin were appointed a committee to frame by-laws for the association’s guidance. After the meeting the boys took charge of an electric car and ‘did’ the town.”

September 1896 was an interesting time to be beginning the study of law. Canadian lawyers had just been summoned to Montreal to form a Canadian Bar Association. Among the promoters of this important initiative was Professor Benjamin Russell.

Inevitably, the arrival of Johnston as the second Black student in the law school reminded contemporaries of the only other one there had been. The March 1897 issue of the Dalhousie Gazette featured an article about Sylvester Williams and his participation in the Model Parliament, a fixture of student life until the 1970s. He was not named and scarcely needed to be. The occasion was memorable not so much for Williams’s eloquent advocacy of representative government for Trinidad and Tobago as for a prankster playing a dirty trick on him. The gas lighting in the chamber was progressively extinguished while he was speaking. Perhaps the law school contributor to the Gazette was warning Johnston to expect similar treatment. It appears that Johnston, though latterly extremely active in partisan politics as a Conservative, never participated in the Model Parliament.

It was also in March 1897 that Johnston commenced articled clerkship with Frank Weldon Russell, junior partner in Benjamin Russell’s father-and-son law firm. (Frank Russell, holding the LLB from Dalhousie and LLM from Cornell, was the best-educated, most scholarly young lawyer in Halifax; Johnston was indeed fortunate to have been articled to him.) Towards the end of his clerkship Johnston appears transferred from Frank Russell to John Thomas Bulmer, a sole practitioner in Halifax whose firm he joined after he was called to the Bar and whose criminal law practice he took over when Bulmer died suddenly in February 1901.

Bulmer was a Christian Socialist radical and freethinker and an outstanding champion of civil rights for Black people in Halifax. He had played a part in desegregating city of Halifax schools in the mid-1880s, an achievement from which Johnston benefited personally, and he was probably the only lawyer in Halifax who accepted Black people as clients. Johnston acted as solicitor for the estate of Bulmer, who died intestate. One wonders whether he also came by default into possession of Bulmer’s law library, said to be among the best in the country and worth $20,000.

In April 1898, the month of his graduation, Johnston participated in mock trials in the basement of Cornwallis Street African Baptist Church. Their purpose was both to accustom the people among whom he had grown up to the prospect of having a Black lawyer to attend to the legal needs of Black people, and to prepare Johnston himself to argue before judge and jury by gaining real-time experience of what it was like to be a trial lawyer declaiming in open court. However, there may have been another, more pressing reason for Johnston’s use of his church for that purpose. Perhaps he was made to feel unwelcome at the weekly moot court, a practicum that was a mandatory feature of student formation at Dalhousie Law School. No evidence exists as to how other undergraduates interacted with Johnston, whom they had to accept as a classmate but may not have taken seriously as a prospective barrister nor regarded as an absolute equal. The point is – he not only graduated law school but was called to the Bar, a far more momentous achievement. Whatever else he may have been, Johnston was no forelock-tugging, deferential Uncle Tom. If anything, he was Canada’s Booker T. Washington, whom he is known to have admired and may just possibly have met. In later years, Johnston hoped to recreate in Halifax the very institution in which Washington himself had been educated: Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University).

The 25-member law class of 1898 was the largest there had been in the 15 years of the school’s existence and included a young New Brunswicker from Bathurst later and better known to the world as Sir James Dunn. April’s convocation exercises at the Academy of Music – on the site of today’s Maritime Centre – were remarkable for their lack of decorum. According to a Halifax newspaper,

Some of the speakers were listened to, others not, the uproar was so deafening. All kinds of antics were indulged in; bottles on strings lowered from galleries regardless of those below; pigeons and fowls set a-flying around, hurdy-gurdies operated, negro minstrelsy interspersed with sacred hymns ... Many ladies in the audience earnestly wished that they had stayed at home and – taking yesterday as an example – will not be in a hurry to endure such an infliction again. It was the general expression that all previous records in this line were broken.

“James Robinson Johnston,” wrote the Dalhousie Gazette in its tongue-in-cheek collective portrait of the graduates,

was no unimportant member of this important class. His beaming face was always welcome amongst us. He has a particular fondness for the fair sex and in consequence always took a prominent part in the College “At Homes.” Jimmie still shows a longing for Dalhousie, and he is taking the lectures in Procedure with us again. He will, we understand, put out his shingle in Halifax. He deserves great credit for the admirable way he has overcome obstacles to obtain a thorough preparation for the Bar, and no doubt his untiring efforts will secure for him a prominent place in the future of our country.

Among the obstacles Johnston had to overcome was his lack of Latin, then (and until 1949) a requirement for call to the Bar. Another indication of the challenges he faced and his need for supplementary study is that two years were to elapse between graduation and call. Usually that time frame would be weeks or months, a year at most. Though the Council of the Barristers’ Society prescribed examinations separate and distinct from the law degree examinations, there was no Bar Admission Course such as we know it today.

Johnston’s clerkship expired in March 1900. He served three years instead of four because Nova Scotia’s modern Barristers and Solicitors Act, which came into force on July 1, 1899, provided that holding the arts or letters degree when articled or the LLB when applying for admission reduced clerkship by one year. Johnston met both conditions, though either sufficed. It was a claim that not every intending lawyer of the time could make.

My story ends on Wednesday, July 18, 1900 – the date on which James R. Johnston was called to the Bar: “a red-letter day in my life” as he described it in a letter to his closest friend. Johnston was now a full-fledged practising barrister. One local newspaper proudly proclaimed him Canada’s first Black lawyer; in fact he was the third, the first having been called in New Brunswick in 1882 and the second in Ontario in 1886. Their paths to the law had been far more tortuous than Johnston’s. Five other lawyers were also called that day, including William Lorimer Hall, a future leader of the provincial Conservative Party, attorney general and justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. A second, Cecil Killam, practised law in Vancouver for 60 years and was among the founders of the University of British Columbia. A third, James William Maddin, was afterwards a prominent criminal defence counsel in Sydney whose daughter would grow up to be one of Nova Scotia’s early woman lawyers. July 18, 1900 was a red-letter day in another respect as well, for that afternoon the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society unveiled in the Halifax County courthouse a life-sized, full-colour bronze bust of the late Prime Minister Sir John S.D. Thompson, who had died in 1894. It was a memorable event at which Johnston would certainly have been present.

While Johnston was becoming a lawyer in Halifax, Sylvester Williams (not yet a lawyer) was organizing the world’s first pan-African conference in London. Though Johnston did not attend, a tradition exists that he was invited to and wanted to. That raises the intriguing possibility that these two Black pioneers whose paths crossed briefly in Halifax in the early 1890s kept in touch after Williams left Nova Scotia and Canada, never to return. The presence of a young Black Canadian lawyer at that world-class history-making event would undoubtedly have attracted much attention.

Lawyer Johnston, as he was known among Black people, went from strength to strength as a criminal defence counsel and activist, ending his 15-year career as the paramount leader of Black Nova Scotians. In 1901, epitomizing as he did the apex of racial uplift, Johnston was presented to their royal highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales on the occasion of the royal visit to Halifax.

The end of things came with tragic unexpectedness on March 3, 1915, nine days shy of his 39 birthday, when Johnston was shot to death in his own home by his wife’s brother. Though the killer was twice tried, twice convicted and twice sentenced to death, he was reprieved. The mystery of motive has never been solved. Paroled, the killer died of natural causes some 20 years later without ever explaining why he had murdered James R. Johnston. Speculation abounds, much of it irresponsible and defamatory, but one thing is certain. On that awful late winter’s evening, African Nova Scotians lost their best man. According to historian Judith Fingard, Johnston’s “short career represented the apogee of 19th-century African Nova Scotian ambitions.” James R. Johnston was unique. There would not be another native-born African Nova Scotian lawyer for 35 years.

Paper presented to Department of Justice Canada, Atlantic Regional Office (Halifax), Black History Month Event, February 28, 2012.

Copyright © 2012 BARRY CAHILL. All Rights Reserved