Abraham Beverley Walker is considered the first Canadian-born black lawyer, but a New Brunswick historian says Mr. Walker’s accomplishments have been all but forgotten by history.
That’s about to change. Mr. Walker will be honoured posthumously with the Order of New Brunswick this week in Fredericton.
“This is to right a wrong,” historian Peter Little said. “I think it was a terrible injustice how he was treated. He was alive and then swept into the dust bin of history after he died.”
Mr. Little had never heard of Mr. Walker until he was asked to do some research for the New Brunswick Black History Society.
He learned that Mr. Walker was born near Saint John in August, 1851, and educated locally before studying law at the National University School of Law in Washington.
Mr. Walker became a lawyer of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick in 1881 and was called to the bar the following year.
Mr. Little said Mr. Walker later took some courses at the Saint John Law School, becoming the first student of colour to enroll.
Mr. Walker opened a law practice in Saint John, but racist attitudes from the community made it hard to get clients, and the practice foundered after just a few years.
The local black community circulated a petition in 1896 or 1897 to get Mr. Walker the designation of Queen’s Counsel.
“He was told that he would be getting it, but when the local white lawyers found about it, they complained to the government and said ‘If you give him that designation, then you can take ours back’ – so he was dropped off the list,” Mr. Little said.
He said Mr. Walker was later promised designation of King’s Counsel, but that also didn’t happen.
Mr. Little said there were many examples of how white lawyers resented him. In one instance, there was a big gala for the law society and every lawyer in the city was invited except Mr. Walker.
“He had a tough row to hoe,” Mr. Little said. “He would be the only New Brunswick black lawyer for another for 122 years.”
After closing his practice, Mr. Walker went to Atlanta for a few years and then returned to Saint John to serve as the law society librarian.
He also published a magazine called Neith. Five editions were printed.
But Mr. Walker’s time in Atlanta had fuelled an interest in the civil-rights movement and he started lecturing all over North America.
“He was an extremely intelligent man. He spoke five languages fluently and said he had a passing knowledge in four others,” Mr. Little said.
Mr. Walker died of tuberculosis in 1909, just shy of turning 60 years old.
Mr. Little began searching for any family of Mr. Walker 2½ years ago, learning that while Mr. Walker had five children, four of them died at a young age.
That search hit a dead-end until just a matter of weeks ago, when Mr. Little received a phone call from Debbie Little (no relation to Peter), who is Mr. Walker’s granddaughter and lives in Michigan.
She will be making the trek to New Brunswick with her son to attend the investiture ceremony on Wednesday for Mr. Walker and nine others.
Established in December, 2000, the Order of New Brunswick is the highest honour of the Province of New Brunswick. It recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the social, cultural or economic well-being of New Brunswick and its residents.
Mr. Little said while he will be accepting the award on behalf of Mr. Walker, he plans to then give it to the family where it belongs.