Abraham Beverley Walker, born in 1851 in Belleisle to William Walker and Patience Taylor, was a noteworthy lawyer and journalist. In 1881, he became Canada’s first black lawyer who was born in the country. Walker achieved many other firsts as well. He was the first law student, regardless of skin color, to be enrolled at the University of New Brunswick. Additionally, he was the first black New Brunswicker to publish a magazine, which he did in 1903.
Walker’s roots in Canada run deep. His loyalist ancestor settled on the Kingston Peninsula in 1786, making him a descendant of one of the first black families to settle in the area. As the son of a farmer, Walker likely received his education at a school run by William Elias Scovil, an Anglican rector in Kingston. It’s possible that he learned shorthand from Scovil. At a young age, Walker began working as a secretary and stenographer for Orson Squire Fowler and Samuel Roberts Wells, two American phrenologists who traveled throughout Canada giving lectures.
After finishing his studies at the National University in Washington, D.C., Walker returned to Saint John and became a law student in the office of lawyer George Godfrey Gilbert. During this time, he supported himself as a shorthand reporter. Walker eventually graduated from the National University law school with an LLB and was admitted as an attorney of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick in June of 1881. He was called to the bar in June of 1882, making him the first native Afro-Canadian lawyer. This title had previously been wrongly attributed to Delos Rogest Davis of Ontario. Near the end of his life, Walker claimed to have earned a DCL, but there is no documentation to support this assertion.
Abraham Beverly Walker opened a law office in Saint John, a city where blacks accounted for a mere 1.2% of the population. Unfortunately, his practice did not thrive, and he became increasingly involved in the New Brunswick Shorthand Association, eventually serving as vice-president in 1886. Additionally, Walker worked as a court reporter. In July of 1885, he applied for the position of official court stenographer but was unsuccessful.
Walker’s attention was also drawn to the issue of racial prejudice. His exclusion from a private banquet hosted by a senior member of the Saint John Law Society in December of 1885, which was held to commemorate the centenary of the New Brunswick bar, caused a public controversy over the “color line.”
By the end of 1889, Walker’s professional prospects seemed so bleak that he decided to move to the United States. He arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, armed with letters of recommendation from the justices of the Supreme Court and others. He believed that the outlook for a lawyer of his race, trained in the strict discipline of British courts and institutions, was “exceedingly hopeful and encouraging” in Atlanta. While there, he gave public lectures on “the negro problem” and decided to become a Georgian “in all the moods and tenses of the term.” However, within two years, he returned to Saint John, where his wife and family had remained.
In October of 1892, Walker became the first student to enroll in the newly established Saint John Law School, which was then a part of King’s College in Windsor, Nova Scotia, and later the faculty of law at the University of New Brunswick. The following year, he successfully applied for the position of librarian of the Saint John Law Society, a position he held until January of 1899. At that point, he was replaced for being absent without leave.
In 1895, the Afro-Canadian community in Saint John petitioned Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper, the minister of justice in the federal Conservative administration, to appoint Walker as QC. Despite assurances that his name would be considered, the promise was not fulfilled, leading Walker to believe that he was the victim of racial discrimination. When he complained to Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, he claimed that a “fierce conspiracy” prevented his appointment, and he accused the Conservative leaders in New Brunswick of betraying him, despite his loyalty to them since the federal election of 1878. The new Liberal minister of justice, Oliver Mowat, declined to intervene, and Walker never received the appointment.
Although he never received the coveted QC designation, Walker was later recognized with an honorary doctorate, presumably from his alma mater. In 1907, he sought another appointment, this time as a provincial KC, from Attorney General Harrison Andrew McKeown. However, once again, his hopes were dashed.
Throughout his career, Walker was a prolific writer, lecturer, and traveler. In February of 1903, he launched “Neith,” a monthly magazine covering literature, science, art, philosophy, jurisprudence, criticism, history, reform, and economics. As editor, he sought contributions not only from academics and literati, but also from leading political and professional figures. According to Robin W. Winks, “Neith” was among the most accomplished monthly literary periodicals of the time and was superior to most publications in the field of Negro journalism. However, due to a lack of financial support, the magazine ceased publication before the end of 1904.
Following the demise of “Neith,” Walker dedicated himself to the establishment and promotion of the African Civilization Movement, of which he served as president. The organization was closely affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and aimed to create an exemplary colony of intelligent and hardworking blacks from Canada and other English-speaking countries in British Africa. Despite traveling throughout Canada and the United States to publicize his ideas, Walker’s efforts met with limited success. While on a tour of Ontario to promote the movement, he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, which ultimately led to his death.
By the mid-1890s, A. B. Walker regarded himself as the foremost leader of his race in the Maritimes, and he was widely recognized as a man of exceptional intelligence, dedication, and energy. He espoused black supremacy, arguing that black rights were based not on racial superiority, but rather on an ancient Egyptian pedigree. This perspective was an inversion of the racist arguments used to justify the separate and unequal treatment of black people by white supremacists. Walker’s beliefs in the superiority of the black race may have been rooted in the pseudo-science of phrenology, which had influenced his intellectual development.
Unlike the realist approach of Booker T. Washington, whose program he criticized in “Neith,” Walker was a utopian idealist. His impact on the progress of the Afro-Canadian community in New Brunswick and throughout the Maritimes was therefore limited. Nevertheless, his status as the first native Afro-Canadian lawyer and, until James Robinson Johnston was called to the bar in 1900, the only black barrister in the Maritimes, ensured his place in history.
Abraham Beverly Walker passed away in 1909 and was buried in the Church of England cemetery on Thorne Avenue in Saint John.
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