Efforts underway to mark the grave of first Canadian-born Black lawyer

·6 min read
Abraham Walker, who struggled to make a living in Saint John as Canada's first black lawyer, will finally have a headstone at his gravesite in the city. (Vaughan Memorial Library/Acadia University - image credit)
Abraham Walker, who struggled to make a living in Saint John as Canada's first black lawyer, will finally have a headstone at his gravesite in the city. (Vaughan Memorial Library/Acadia University - image credit)

If everything goes according to plan, one of New Brunswick's pioneering lawyers will no longer be buried in an unmarked grave.

Abraham Beverley Walker was the first Canadian-born Black lawyer, but faced racism throughout his life, which made it virtually impossible to have a successful career.

He was buried in the Church of England cemetery on Thorne Avenue in Saint John.

His grave no longer has any marker.

But a group of people in the Saint John area hope that is about to change.

Peter Little is an amateur historian who became interested in Walker's life after hearing his name from Ralph Thomas, who works with the New Brunswick Black History Society and the anti-racism group, PRUDE Inc..

Amateur historian Peter Little, who researched Abraham Walker, described him as an incredibly intelligent, remarkable man. Little has been working toward getting a grave marker for Walker's unmarked plot.
Amateur historian Peter Little, who researched Abraham Walker, described him as an incredibly intelligent, remarkable man. Little has been working toward getting a grave marker for Walker's unmarked plot.(Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Little said he was shocked he had never heard of Walker, given he was a practising lawyer, a civil rights activist and a newspaper publisher.

"I had taken to calling him Canada's Martin Luther King [Jr.], but I stopped doing that because [Walker] came first," Little said.

But Little said it's an apt comparison. Walker was an eloquent speaker who took a non-violent approach to fighting racism, one that was deeply rooted in his Christian faith.

Little, Thomas and a number of others pushed for Walker to be posthumously named to the Order of New Brunswick in 2019.

And not long after that, Little said, a local lawyer reached out to talk about the possibility of putting a stone on Walker's unmarked grave, and a plaque in tribute on the walls of Saint John's Law Courts building.

A number of members of the law community are now involved in the effort, including Neil Clements.

Neil Clements says when he began practising law in Saint John, he was the second Black lawyer in the city in more than 200 years of history. He says Walker is a 'symbol for every Black lawyer in the country.'
Neil Clements says when he began practising law in Saint John, he was the second Black lawyer in the city in more than 200 years of history. He says Walker is a 'symbol for every Black lawyer in the country.'(The REAL DEAL NEIL/Facebook)

Clements, born and raised in the Saint John area, said that when he started practising law in the city, he was the second Black lawyer to do so. Walker was the first.

Clements has known about the man's story for 20 years. His office is just a block from where Walker set up his practice.

So when he was contacted by some local lawyers who told him they'd like to help get Walker the recognition he deserved but did not want to be the face of the effort, Clements agreed to take on that role.

"They did what most don't do," Clements said, "They basically said we don't want to be seen as "white saviours," and those are my words, not theirs."

Clements likes that approach. "We want allies who want to help," he said.

Mistreated by legal profession

Walker was not well-treated by the white legal community in his day. He was excluded from regular professional events.

As well, senior lawyers opposed a decision to give him a Queen's Counsel appointment, saying they would give up their own QC's if the offer to Walker was not rescinded.

That's something that Clements struggles to explain as a lawyer and as a Black man.

"The Queen's Counsel, or the King's Counsel, it's for lawyers who have given it all for the profession," he said.

"Whenever a senior lawyer makes the comment they'd give theirs up … I don't think there's a word for it."

Words still relevant

Walker ended up accepting the job of librarian at the local law society in order to provide for his wife and five children.

He became active on the lecture circuit, speaking across North America about race issues and what he called the promotion of "justice and fair play."

And he published a newspaper in the early 1900s that tackled race relations head on, something for which he received criticism from white New Brunswickers.

Clements has read four volumes of the publication, called Neith.

"His words were pretty righteous," Clements said, "They're relevant today, more than relevant today, because we want to hear them."

"They're revolutionary today, imagine what they were back then."

The proposed front of the headstone for Walker's grave. It is planned to be placed in the Church of England Cemetery in Saint John on the week of May 24.
The proposed front of the headstone for Walker's grave. It is planned to be placed in the Church of England Cemetery in Saint John on the week of May 24.(Peter Little/Nelson Monuments)

Clements said the group of lawyers have not yet approached the minister of justice about the idea of a plaque honouring Walker being placed in the Saint John Law Courts building.

"Abraham Walker is a symbol for every Black lawyer in the country."

"I expect it will get a positive reaction," he said, "If it doesn't, then the system has the outcome it wants."

There has been no discussion of what the plaque may contain, or where it might be placed within the building, but Clements thinks that's something that will take "an awful lot of thought."

Walker died in 1909 from tuberculosis.

Peter Little has managed to pinpoint the likely site of Walker's grave, using a book by the late Lennox W. Bagnell, a Saint John genealogist who delved into old maps of the cemetery and identified people buried there from the late 1830s to the early 1920s.

The monument will include a quote from Walker on its reverse side, one that is similar to Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'content of his character' quote, made more than 50 years after Walker's death. Both men preached non-violent opposition to racism.
The monument will include a quote from Walker on its reverse side, one that is similar to Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'content of his character' quote, made more than 50 years after Walker's death. Both men preached non-violent opposition to racism.(Peter Little/Nelson Monuments)

"We owe a debt of gratitude to him," Little said.

The headstone will cost $4,700, and the plaque for the courts building will be another $1,300.

The group has already ordered the stone. Little said it will be placed on the week of May 24.

Meanwhile, PRUDE is raising money to pay for it.

The headstone will feature a laser-etched image of Walker and will identify the site as the final resting place of him and his wife Eliza.

It will also include a quotation from Walker, which reads: "A man should not be measured by his race, or his colour, or his creed, but by the size of his soul, or his heart, or his mind."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

<cite>(CBC)</cite>
(CBC)