If all goes according to plan, one of New Brunswick’s landmark attorneys will no longer be buried in an unmarked grave.
Abraham Beverley Walker was the first Canadian-born black lawyer, but was exposed to racism throughout his life, making a successful career virtually impossible.
He was buried in the Church of England cemetery on Thorne Avenue in Saint John.
His grave no longer has a marker.
But a group of people in the Saint John area are hoping this will soon change.
Peter Little is an amateur historian who took an interest 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.
The amateur historian Peter Little, who researched Abraham Walker, described him as an incredibly intelligent, remarkable man. Little has worked to get a headstone for Walker’s unmarked conspiracy. (Brian Chisholm / CBC)
Little said he was shocked he had never heard of Walker because he was a practicing lawyer, civil rights activist and newspaper publisher.
“I called him Canada’s Martin Luther King [Jr.]but I stopped doing it [Walker] came first, “said Little.
But Little said it was an apt comparison. Walker was an eloquent speaker who nonviolently cracked down on racism deeply rooted in his Christian faith.
Little, Thomas, and several others urged Walker to be posthumously inducted into the Order of New Brunswick in 2019.
And not long after, Little said, a local attorney spoke about the possibility of laying a stone on Walker’s unmarked grave and a plaque on the walls of the Saint John courthouse.
A number of members of the legal community are now involved in the effort, including Neil Clements.
Neil Clements says when he practiced 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 practicing law in the city, he was the second black lawyer to do so. Walker was the first.
Clements has known the story of the man for 20 years. His office is one block from Walker.
When contacted by several local lawyers who said they would like to help Walker get the recognition he deserved but didn’t want to be the face of the effort, Clements agreed to take on that role.
“They did what most don’t,” said Clements. “They basically said we don’t want to be seen as ‘white saviors’ and those are my words, not theirs.”
Clements likes this approach. “We want allies who want to help,” he said.
Abused by lawyers
Walker was not treated well by the white legal community in his day. He was banned from regular professional events.
Senior lawyers also turned down a decision to give him a Queen’s Counsel appointment, saying they would give up their own QCs if the offer to Walker was not withdrawn.
This is something that Clements finds it difficult to explain as a lawyer and as a black.
“The Queen’s Lawyer or the King’s Lawyer is for lawyers who have given their all for the profession,” he said.
“Whenever a senior attorney makes the comment, give up on yours … I don’t think there’s a word for it.”
Words still relevant
Walker ended up taking a job as a librarian with the local bar association to care for his wife and five children.
He became active in the lecture series and spoke across North America about racial issues and what he called promoting “justice and fair play”.
And he published a newspaper in the early 20th century that dealt directly with racial relations, for which he was criticized by white New Brunswickers.
Clements read four volumes of the publication called Neith.
“His words were pretty fair,” said Clements, “they are relevant today, more than relevant today because we want to hear them.”
“You are revolutionary today, just imagine what you were then.”
The proposed face of the headstone for Walker’s grave. It is scheduled to stand in the Church of England graveyard at Saint John during the week of May 24th. (Peter Little / Nelson Monuments)
Clements said the group of attorneys had not yet reached out to the attorney general to place a plaque in honor of Walker in the Saint John Law Courts building.
“Abraham Walker is a symbol for every black lawyer in the country.”
“I assume there will be a positive response,” he said. “If this is not the case, the system has the desired result.”
There has been no discussion of what the plaque might contain or where it might be placed in the building, but Clements believes this is something that will require “a great deal of thought”.
Walker died of tuberculosis in 1909.
Peter Little managed to locate the probable location of Walker’s grave with the help of a book by the late Lennox W. Bagnell, a genealogist from Saint John, who looked at old maps of the cemetery and identified people there between the late 1830s and early 1830s 1920s identified.
The memorial will feature a quote from Walker on the back, similar to Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote about the content of his character, made more than 50 years after Walker’s death. Both men preached nonviolent resistance to racism. (Peter Little / Nelson Monuments)
“We owe him thanks,” said Little.
The headstone will cost $ 4,700, and the plaque for the courthouse will cost an additional $ 1,300.
The group has already ordered the stone. Little said, it will be placed in the week of May 24th.
In the meantime, PRUDE is collecting money to pay for it.
The headstone will contain a laser-etched image of Walker and identify the place as the final resting place of him and his wife, Eliza.
It will also include a quote from Walker that reads: “A man should not be judged by race, skin color or creed, but by the size of his soul, heart or mind.”
For more stories about black Canadians’ experiences – from racism against blacks to success stories within the black community – see Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.