Saint John 

      At the Turn of the Century

Saint John is Canada's oldest incorporated city and an important economic and cultural centre in Atlantic Canada. It was also the largest city in New Brunswick for over 200 years, until it was surpassed by Moncton in 2016. At the turn of the twentieth century, Saint John was a bustling industrial centre and commercial port. 

 

Panorama of Saint John, NB c. 1900.  New Brunswick Museum-Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick, www.nbm-mnb.ca 1996.8.2.15

The city was  also was undergoing a profound transformation. The Saint John Board of Trade's The Book of Saint John (1903) captures the confidence and optimism with which many in Saint John greeted the new century: "Saint John is the city of Loyalists, the winter port of Canada, the commercial metropolis of New Brunswick, and the leading city of the Maritime Provinces" (1). The book, which tells the story of "the rise and development of the modern ambitious city," boasts that "nowhere can be seen the signs of poverty or distress" (1).

Saint John was becoming "modern" industrial city, but the outlook was not as positive as The Book of Saint John would suggest. The city had already lost the national prominence it once held as an economic-commercial centre and year-round port. As the centre of Canada shifted West, Saint John became increasingly marginal, dropping from the third largest city in in British North America in 1851 to the eighth largest in 1901, and retaining only residual economic and cultural importance. The redevelopment of Saint John as one of Canada's two "winter ports"  meant rapid changes inconsistent with its "modest growth of population" (McKay). While its location on the mouth of the Saint John river made Saint John an important entry point into Canada, it was mostly bypassed by the large influx of immigrants in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Meanwhile, the city maintained lively periodical and press cultures, but didn’t have access to the cultural infrastructure that supported the book-publishing centres of Montreal and Toronto.

 Germain Street looking north toward King st. c.1898. Paterson & Co. Printing and Publishing was located in the fourth building on the left, at 107 Germain St. 

New Brunswick Museum-Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick, www.nbm-mnb.ca , 1989.181.22

It was likely the declining prominence of Saint John combined with its comparatively small black population that leads historian Robin Winks to claim that, “had Walker established his journal in Ontario … he might have succeeded” (401). Perhaps, but

 

Neith’s appearance in Saint John was not incidental. For while Saint John’s white public may not have been receptive to Walker's radical black nationalism, the city was nevertheless uniquely positioned as a site of cultural production and political contest.

In the absence of a large commercial press industry, writers and intellectuals in Saint John relied disproportionately on periodicals for the dissemination of literature and ideas. At the turn of the century, Saint John maintained the same vigorous print culture that had placed it and its rival, Halifax, at the center of British North America’s burgeoning exercise in free expression in the mid-19th century. In 1903, the year Neith appeared, it boasted eight newspapers, several monthly magazines, and twenty-two printing and publishing houses (McApline’s 34, 36). It was one of the more prominent among the city's publishers, Paterson Publishing & Co. , that printed Neith. 

Urban Africadia

Poet and literary critic George Elliot Clarke uses the term "Africadia" to refer to the Black communities of the Maritime Provinces of Canada: "A fusion of Africa and cadie, the Mi'kmaq term for 'abounding in', . . . Africadia(n) serves to stress the long history of Africans in Maritime Canada" (Odysseys 18). Home to a black community with a strong tradition of activism, Saint John can be considered a key urban locus for Africadian culture.

Throughout the 19th century, the city was home to a sizable African-Canadian population, owing primarily to the influx of black loyalists and black refugees who settled in Saint John in the late 18th and 19th centuries. These new residents combined with former slaves (slavery was nominally abolished in New Brunswick in 1834) to form a a number of black communities around Saint John at Loch Lomond, Westfield, and the Kingston Peninsula. By the turn of the century, Saint John was home to the region’s largest Africadian community outside Nova Scotia.

AME Church SAint John 2.JPG

The African Methodist Episcopal Church, Saint John, c.1925

New Brunswick Museum-Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick, www.nbm-mnb.caColwell-Book3-pg59

Saint John’s Africadian population declined through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1785 Charter of Saint John had instituted repressive laws that effectively prevented the participation of African-Canadians in civic life. Little assistance was given to former slaves, Black Loyalists, and Black refugees, and people of African heritage were prohibited from living and working within city limits. These laws were repealed and the restrictions lifted in the 1870s, but the situation for Africadians in Saint John hardly improved. On the point of racial prejudice and discrimination, The Book of Saint John clearly misses the mark, informing readers that, in Saint John, "there are no race, class or creed distinctions of any kind. All citizens are on an absolute equality"  (31). In fact, the turn of the century saw increased job and housing discrimination, and most black-owned businesses in Saint John either closed or sold out to whites because of the difficulty of obtaining capital.

Nevertheless, the community persisted and developed a strong tradition of civil rights and community activism in the 20th century. Such activism was exemplified by the organization of Saint John's Africadian community to protest the screening of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1916. Organized around St. Philip's African Methodist Episcopal Church, the community held protests, petitioned provincial censors, and eventually established a civil rights organization, The British Negro Protective Association. Walker was a part of this tradition of Africadian activism, just as Neith was representative of Saint John's vibrant periodical culture. 

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