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activist Carrie Best

by DG Graham | February 25, 1998

You may have heard of Rosa Parks, the American woman who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in Alabama, triggering a nation-wide protest and demand for reform. Canada has its own Rosa Parks, a woman by the name of Viola Desmond. Her crime was this: when stopping in a town unfamiliar to her, she mistakenly sat in the locally known “whites-only” section of a theatre. Although she offered to pay the difference in ticket price to remain in her seat, she was arrested, convicted, and fined.

Carrie Best, the founder of Nova Scotia’s first newspaper for Blacks, heard the story and wrote about it. This happened in 1946, nine years before Rosa Parks’ own brave act. Viola and Carrie organized other Blacks to lobby the Nova Scotia government which finally repealed the law of segregation in 1954. Carrie Best worked in and for her community until her death in 2001 at the age of 97.

In 1992, when she was 89, Carrie Best wasn’t lawn bowling; she was fighting a court battle over a land dispute. She wanted the land in order to have some money to create a trust fund for gifted young people. So what did she do? Call a slick lawyer, then sit back and let her do all the work? No, she revived the Nova Scotia Clarion, the newspaper she founded in 1946. It had ceased publication in 1956, but 36 years later Carrie decided she’d be heard if she published all the details of the dispute. And so she did. This is not a woman who needed to repeat “I think I can, I think I can” like the little engine. She knew she could.

This incredible energy and indomitable spirit seem to have characterized her whole life. Marion Byard at the Ontario Black History Society told me that Carrie Best had always been her role model “because she was something no other Black woman was in our area. She did things, and said things, and she made sure everybody heard what she was saying. We Black girls didn’t have anybody like her to look up to; no Black woman did the kinds of things she did. To this day, she is still the woman I would most like to be like."

Carrie was born in 1903, a time when Blacks were discriminated against, segregated and ghettoized in Canada. The daughter of a cook and a labourer, Carrie entered a nursing school in Chicago, explored teaching and decided neither profession was for her. She returned home to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1925 and married a railway porter named Albert Best. They had a son, then adopted two daughters.

While raising her children, Carrie became very involved with human rights issues in New Glasgow, and gave poetry readings to raise money to help to pay Black families’ taxes. She decided that too much relevant information was being kept from people. To rectify this, she started (with her son Calbert – named for both his mother and his father) the Nova Scotia Clarion, to be a voice for “coloured Nova Scotians for promoting inter-racial understanding and goodwill.” It was the first Black newspaper in Nova Scotia, and a vehicle for Carrie’s investigative reporting on discrimination.

She liked personal stories rather than “general condition” articles. She went into restaurants and reported how she was treated compared to the white customers. Her publication of the story of a Black baby denied burial in a “white” cemetery resulted in increased activism on the part of civil rights activists in both Canada and the United States. Ultimately, the Nova Scotia government was forced to address the racist practices in the province.

When she stopped publication of her own newspaper in 1956, Carrie continued to advocate on behalf of Blacks both at public speaking events and in the columns of several Nova Scotia newspapers. She uncovered land scams perpetrated against Black communities. In one case, poor Black property owners on New Glasgow’s Vale Road were being charged higher taxes than wealthier business addresses in order to force the sale of those properties. She prepared a report for the Human Rights Commission with the full support of the Premier of Nova Scotia. He probably knew Carrie would make an even bigger fuss and embarrass him if he didn’t support her.

She started her own radio program, The Quiet Corner, that aired for 12 years during which she read from poems and novels. She also published her autobiography, That Lonesome Road, through her own publishing company. When her husband died in 1971, she donated five hectares of her land to create a park named after him. The Albert T. Best Park was planned to be safe for children and the elderly.

So much of what Black women and men did during the last century in Canada has been undocumented and unrecognized because of lack of interest in keeping records or honouring any progress. Fortunately, Carrie Best was recognized for what she did. She received the Lloyd McInnis Memorial Award (for contributions to public betterment), the first annual award from the National Black Coalition of Canada, and an award from the African United Baptist Association. She was made a member and then elevated to officer of the Order of Canada. She also received honourary degrees from both St. Francis Xavier University and King’s College.

Carrie Best’s grandson Stephen tells of an interesting coincidence in his family history. His mother’s father, Charles Phills, was the first Black person in Canada to receive the Order of Canada. Carrie Best, his father’s mother, was the first Black woman to receive the Order of Canada. He added that his father was Canada’s first Black ambassador, making his a “family of firsts.”

more to consider

You have to admire the guts and determination of this woman. Carrie Best sees an injustice and wants to do something about it, but nobody will listen to her because she’s a Black woman. So what does she do? She starts a newspaper. Now that’s a feisty thing to do. It’s not easy to start a publication, but a newspaper specifically directed at publicizing injustices done to Blacks? Carrie must have been just a little bit worried about violent reprisals; somebody burning down her house, or threatening her kids, or something.

But, she went ahead anyway. White newspapers weren’t interested in Black issues, and they probably wouldn’t report the truth. So Blacks had to have their own megaphone, and Carrie Best provided it. She made it possible for Blacks to challenge the status quo publicly. She investigated stories, and published them, and sometimes forced change. The Black voice would be heard.

To get a sense of the enormity of what Carrie Best accomplished, put her efforts into historical context. Carrie Best faced what every Black person faced in her time: intense discrimination, segregation and extremely limited opportunities. Not that different, you might think, from what many Blacks still face today. The difference is that in the early twentieth century, bigotry was socially acceptable. In fact, it was encouraged. Although slavery had been abolished for nearly 100 years when Carrie went out looking for work in 1920, neither the social attitude toward Blacks nor society’s estimation of their employment capacities had changed that much.

Black women were curtailed in employment because of segregation and gender discrimination. Blacks weren’t allowed to go to white schools, and women were expected to handle domestic jobs. So Black women were trapped; no one believed they could do anything else, so they were never given the opportunity.

Even World War Two, which provided new employment opportunities for Canadian women, didn’t open as many doors for Black women. While they were allowed to do work other than that of the domestic variety, they were restricted to jobs considered unsafe or “unsuitable” for white women. For instance, night-shift work in unventilated airplane factories and the most dangerous jobs in the explosives sections of ammunition factories. When the men came back from the war and tried to put women back in the kitchen, it was even harder for Black women to break free.

What Carrie Best did was extraordinary. She couldn’t have had many role models, if any. And if it was hard to be taken seriously as a woman back then, it must have been nearly impossible for a Black woman.

resources for this story
  • That Lonesome Road, by CARRIE BEST, Clarion Publishing Co. Ltd. | 1977
  • Leading the Way: Black Women in Canada, by ROSEMARY SADLIER, Umbrella Press, ISBN: 1895642116 |1994

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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