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UNB honours trailblazing lawyer and civil rights pioneer, Abraham Beverley Walker

Author: UNB Newsroom

Posted on Feb 28, 2023

Category: UNB Saint John

UNB and the City of Saint John formalize the naming of Abraham B. Walker Way on Saint John campus

Abraham B. Walker

The University of New Brunswick (UNB), in collaboration with the City of Saint John, is in the process of formalizing the name of a previously unnamed roadway. Abraham B. Walker Way will be the first roadway on the Saint John campus dedicated to a person.

“Abraham Beverley Walker was a civil rights pioneer in New Brunswick and North America and deserves recognition for his notable achievements,” says Dr. Paul J. Mazerolle, UNB president and vice-chancellor. “Walker was not only the first Canadian-born Black lawyer but also the first Black student at UNB Law.”

Born on Aug. 23, 1851, in Belleisle, New Brunswick, to farmer William Walker and Patience Taylor. Walker’s loyalist ancestor was among the first Black people to settle on the Kingston Peninsula, upriver from Saint John, in 1786. He is best known as a lawyer, journalist and activist.

As a teenager, Abraham Walker worked as a stenographer and toured Canada with noted phrenologists Orson Squire Fowler and Samuel Roberts Wells. Walker went on to study at the National University in Washington D.C. before returning to Saint John to study in the legal office of George Godfrey Gilbert. In June 1881, Walker was admitted as an attorney of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick.

In October 1892, Walker was the first Black student to attend Saint John Law School – now UNB’s faculty of law.

"We are pleased that such a notable UNB law student is being recognized on the UNB Saint John campus,” says UNB law dean Michael Marin. “In 2021, UNB law created the Abraham Walker Scholarship for a Black student in the first year of the JD Program. It makes sense that we continue to honour his legacy to New Brunswick and UNB Saint John.”

After being admitted to the bar in 1882, Walker opened his own law office on Princess Street in Saint John, which ultimately failed due, in part, because of racism. Despite being highly educated and influential, Walker faced insurmountable discrimination and systemic racism. For example, he was excluded from local events for solicitors. In 1895, the Afro-Canadian community of Saint John nominated Walker for a Queen’s Counsel appointment, which was ultimately denied. Historical documents indicate that Walker attributed this to racial discrimination. Walker asked Attorney General Andrew McKeown for an appointment as a provincial King’s Counsel but was also denied.

Walker was a man ahead of the times. He fought for racial equality and is what we would today consider a civil rights activist. He advocated for universal suffrage and spoke against governments for their racism.

Peter Little, author of Abraham Beverley Walker: Lawyer, Lecturer, Activist, credits Walker with having said: “A man should not be measured by his race, or his colour, or his creed, but by the size of his soul, his heart, or his mind.”

Walker founded and edited Neith, the first African-Canadian literary magazine, which focused on racial issues and gave a forum to Black writers in and out of Atlantic Canada. Neith, although lasting only a few issues, once again, due to racism and lack of readership, is credited as a primary source of radical Black politics within Canadian discourse.

He lectured extensively across North America, and, while lecturing in Ontario, Walker became ill with tuberculosis, which ultimately led to his death in 1909.

Until recently, despite being a Saint John local, Walker had become a forgotten part of New Brunswick history. In 2019, the Government of New Brunswick honoured him with an Order of New Brunswick. In 2021, the New Brunswick Black History Society Unveiled a headstone to mark Walker’s grave in the Church of England cemetery on Thorne Avenue in Saint John. In 2022, a plaque with Walker’s story was installed at the Saint John Law Courts.

Now, in 2023, UNB is proud to honour Abraham Beverley Walker on its UNB Saint John Campus with Abraham B. Walker Way.

Photo: Dr. Abrahahm B. Walker, from his book ‘A Message to the public’ Image courtesy of Special Collections, Vaughan Memorial Library, Acadia University