A Voice for Equal Rights in Nova Scotia

“Racism began with me at birth. But I fought on my own terms and with my own weapons: intelligence, patience, a lot of prayer and a lot of forgiveness.” – Carrie Best (July 26, 1991) © Canada Post / 2011 / Reproduced with permission
Carrie Best’s reporting brought Viola Desmond’s story to the public’s attention. © The Clarion, New Glasgow, December 1946; NSA Newspaper Collection

For the week of Monday, February 26, 2018.

On March 4, 1903, prominent journalist, publisher, broadcaster, and civil rights activist, Carrie Best was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She lived in a time of pervasive discrimination towards African-Canadians, when schools and businesses practised racial segregation.

When the Roseland Theatre removed several African-Canadian teenagers from its premises in December 1941 because they sat in a section reserved for white patrons, Best and her son staged a protest. They went to the theatre and sat in the “white-only” section. Forcefully removed, police charged them with disturbing the peace. Best subsequently filed a civil lawsuit, citing racial discrimination, but lost and had to pay the defendant’s costs. However, she was not deterred.

In 1946, Best founded The Clarion. Originally a single-sheet community bulletin, it matured into the second newspaper in Nova Scotia owned and published by African-Canadians. The inaugural issue featured a story about African-Canadian businesswoman Viola Desmond of Halifax. She had also been removed from the Roseland Theatre and charged with a minor tax violation: she had paid for a balcony seat, but then proceeded to the main floor section. With no appointed court counsel, Desmond lost the case and was fined $26 by the judge. Best appealed to The Clarion readers to raise legal fees for Desmond’s appeal of her conviction in the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Desmond lost her appeal, although in 2010 the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia issued her a royal pardon.

The Clarion became The Negro Citizen in 1956, when it began national circulation. By this time, Best was also gaining prominence as the host of The Quiet Corner, a program of poetry and music on Maritime radio stations. Best continued her advocacy in the years that followed, writing a weekly column for The Pictou Advocate from 1968 to 1975, which promoted equal rights for all. In 1974, she received the Order of Canada for her work as a writer and broadcaster. Awarded honorary doctorates from St. Francis Xavier University (1975) and the University of King’s College (1992), the latter also named a scholarship in her honor.

Viola Desmond is a designated national historic person. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn

February is Black History Month. Learn more about African-Canadian histories by exploring our online archives about R. Nathaniel Dett, Carrie Best, Ernest Melville DuPorte, William Hall, George Dixon, and the Experiences of Black Loyalists, among others, and check out entries about No 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F., Kathleen ‘Kay’ Livingstone, and the Black Pioneers in British Columbia in the Directory of Federal Heritage Designations