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Sun, 03.12.1876

James R. Johnston, Canadian Lawyer born

James R. Johnston

*James R. Johnston was born on this date in 1876.  He was a Black Canadian lawyer and community leader.  James Robinson Johnston was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the eldest of the five sons of William Johnston, a shoemaker, and Elizabeth Ann Thomas. His maternal grandparents were Reverend James Thomas, a white man from Wales who headed the African Baptist Association from 1861 to 1879, and Hannah Saunders, a Black Nova Scotian woman.  

In the 1880s, Johnston was restricted from attending public school due to Nova Scotia’s segregation laws. Under the system in place, Black children attended separate underfunded schools. At the age of six, Johnston began attending the Black Maynard School. In 1884, the segregation of schools was repealed, and by 1887 he was attending the Albro Street School, making Johnston the first Black student to attend a white Nova Scotian school. The following year he transferred to the Halifax Academy.

Throughout his school years, he was recognized as a brilliant student and, upon graduating in 1892 at sixteen, enrolled at Dalhousie College (Dalhousie University). He graduated in 1896 with a Bachelor of Letters and then entered Dalhousie Law School. Graduating in 1898, he was the first black Nova Scotian to graduate from university. After graduating from law school, Johnston articled and was called to the Bar in 1900. 

Johnston joined the African Baptist Association in about 1886 at the young age of ten. His family had been long-standing members of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, and he followed this well-worn path, becoming an officer of the church, President of the Baptists Young People's Union, superintendent of the Sunday School, and a member of the finance committee. He and co-founder James A.R. Kinney were original officials of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes. In 1899 he became a field missionary to support other Black Baptist churches throughout Nova Scotia.  

The Conservative Party had been instrumental in repealing the school segregation laws in Nova Scotia, so it was only natural that Johnston became a party member.  After law school, he worked for John Thomas Bulmer. In 1901, Bulmer died suddenly, and Johnston assumed the practice.  Johnston represented those who needed his legal services, regardless of race, rich or poor, residing in Halifax or, if need be, traveling to other areas of the Province. He defended his clients in the police, county, and Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.  On February 26, 1902, he married Janie (Jennie) May Allen in Windsor Junction, Nova Scotia. In 1910 Janie gave birth to a son, and he died in 1911 of meningitis.  

In 1906 he became secretary of the African Baptist Association. Johnson’s network of contacts and influence grew through his membership in organizations such as the Aetna Club (President), African Baptist Association (Secretary), Colored People's Celebration Committee (for the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the African Baptist Association), Order of the Good Templars (District Chief - the higher position in Halifax), Independent Order of Oddfellows (Secretary), and joined the Freemasons' Union Lodge (Master).  In 1908, Johnston suggested creating a preparatory agricultural and industrial school along the lines of the Tuskegee Institute. Along with orders in the community, he continued to lobby for the school and, in 1914, had the idea presented to the Halifax Board of Trade and the Nova Scotia Legislature. The advent of World War I brought this and other ideas to an end. Johnston initiated the push to create the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children for orphaned and neglected Black children.  

On the evening of March 3, 1915, after returning from work to celebrate his wife's birthday, he was shot twice in his home by his brother-in-law, Harry Allen. Johnston was wounded but pursued his brother-in-law into the street, where a struggle over the gun ensued. He was then shot three more times, this time fatally.  In 1915, one month after his death, the Nova Scotia Government passed legislation making the school a reality. Johnston is rightly recognized as one of the School's co-founders.

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