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Honouring a prestigious legacy and an extraordinary man

Posted by Dawn Morrison on March 23, 2022 in News

The James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies celebrates 25 years of excellence

Dr. OmiSoore Dryden organized and co-hosted the event with Charla Williams, great-niece of James Robinson Johnston.

The atmosphere was one of joyful celebration in the McInnes Room of the SUB on March 10 for the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies 25th Anniversary Celebration. Members of the Johnston family — descendants of chair namesake Mr. James R. Johnston, the first African Nova Scotian person to earn a Dalhousie degree — joined Dr. Deep Saini, President, Dr. Frank Harvey, Vice-President, Academic; Dr. Alice Aiken, VP Research & Innovation; Dr. Theresa Rajack-Talley, Vice-Provost, Equity & Inclusion, and other members of the senior administration; the larger Dalhousie, and broader local community for the event.

The evening began with a drumming ceremony by Drummers from Home, who opened the space with African and world beat rhythms. The ceremony was followed by a land acknowledgement from Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, the current James R. Johnston Chair who organized and co-hosted the event with Ms. Charla Williams, a descendant of Mr. Johnston.

Charla Williams is a great-niece of James Robinson Johnston, the middle child of seven born to Aleta, his niece and daughter of his brother Clarence. Ms. Williams attended the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie and completed her degree in 2007 and worked for more 40 years in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The James R. Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies honours Mr. Johnston and his accomplishments by building bridges between academia, locally and nationally, and the wider African descended communities through scholarship, research, and community engagement.

A prestigious legacy

The James R. Johnston Chair is a significant senior academic post in Canada, established to honour not only the life of Mr. Johnston, but also to recognize and honour the unique historical presence of African Nova Scotian people. From the beginning, the Johnston Chair has been rooted in engagement with African Nova Scotian and Black communities, as noted by Dr. Dryden.

“Mr. Johnston was a family man and to properly fulfil the principles of the Chair and to honour the legacy of Mr. Johnston means developing strong ties with the family. The Johnston family has embraced me and supported the work of the Chairs over these past 25 years. I always knew that to have a successful celebration meant to centre the family. Black studies is rooted in radical political and activist movements, and Nova Scotia has vibrant and politically active African Nova Scotian communities, including the Johnston family. The Johnston Chairs have always acknowledged the centrality of community in Black studies,” says Dr. Dryden.

In his remarks, Dr. Saini echoed this connection as he welcomed the family to Dalhousie for the milestone event. “You are such an important part of Dalhousie’s history, Nova Scotia’s history and indeed the history of this country,” he said.

“Twenty-five years ago, Dalhousie University made history by becoming the first university in the country to create a dedicated, academic position devoted to Black Canadian Studies. Since then, four nationally recognized scholars who have held this position have each made ground-breaking contributions through their perspectives in the study of the Black citizens of this country and beyond.”

“The dedication shown by the people and institutions in initiating this position was a testament to the power of collaboration — among the university, government, industry, and the community. Nothing has changed in that regard in that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish if we work together,” Dr. Saini added.

A celebration of the Chairs

Dr. Dryden noted the evening commemorated two anniversaries: the 25th anniversary of the Chair and the 30th anniversary of the endowment that made it possible. Members of the family offered their remarks throughout the night and the event featured a celebration of the Chairs:

  • The Inaugural Johnston Chair (1996-2002) was Dr. Esmeralda Thornhill, situated in the Faculty of Law, the same faculty from which Mr. Johnston graduated. Dr. Thornhill, a fluently trilingual and eminent legal scholar, was instrumental in co-developing the path-breaking course, Critical Race & Legal Theory: Race, Racism and Law in Canada, perhaps the earliest of critical race and law courses in Canada. Professor Thornhill collaborated and partnered with a group of local, national, and international organizations, to plan and host an international initiative marking the United Nations third Decade Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.
  • The second Johnston Chair (2004-2009), Prof. David Divine was hosted in the Faculty of Health — then Health Professions. Prof. Divine is a scholar of social work. His areas of research includes, social housing, addressing social exclusion, Black men’s sexuality, service delivery, HIV/AIDS, and immigration. Prof. Divine planned several national and international conferences, specifically the 2005 national conference: Multiple Lenses: Voices from the Diaspora located in Canada.
  • Dr. Afua Cooper, the third Johnston Chair (2011-2017), was situated in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Dr. Cooper’s areas of research address African Canadian, abolitionism, women and gender, the Black Atlantic and slavery. She is a historian and a dub poet. Dr. Cooper developed the first Black Studies minor at a Canadian university and established several networks, including the Dalhousie Black Faculty and Staff Association, and the Black Canadian Studies Association.

Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, the fourth and current James R. Johnston Chair (2019-present), is situated in the Faculty of Medicine. The first queer person to hold the chair, Dr. Dryden’s research engages in interdisciplinary scholarship that focuses on Black LGBTQI communities, anti-Black racism in health care, medical education, and Black health curricular content development.  Dr. Dryden hosts Chair Chats for Black students in health professions and graduate school and helped to establish the Sophia B. Jones Mentorship program for Black medical students at Dalhousie. Dr. Dryden is the co-lead of the new national organization, the Black Health Education Collaborative. Most recently, Dr. Dryden piloted the creation of the new Black Studies Research Institute at Dalhousie, which will focus on Black studies in STEM.

Dr. Judy MacDonald, Director of the School of Social Work, helped to unveil a portrait of Prof. David Divine, the second Johnston Chair (2004-2009).

Two portraits of the Chairs were unveiled during the celebration: that of Dr. Afua Cooper (FASS) and Prof. David Divine. Dean Jure Gantar (FASS) was on hand to unveil the portrait of Dr. Cooper, who was unfortunately unable to attend the festivities. Dr. Judy MacDonald, Director of the School of Social Work, was on hand to help unveil the portrait of Dr. Divine.

“The Chair is unique in that it is very much a part of the community here. She or he is responsible and accountable to the community which paved the way for this very prestigious position,” Prof. Divine said. “And we in turn as individual Chairs must be transparent in what we do and show what we are doing, and that is critically important. We must be collaborative and work with others as equals. We are not more important than anyone else; we are part of everything else. This is a hugely important facet of this position.”

Prof. Divine added that he was deeply grateful to the family of James R. Johnston for their support during his tenure as Chair and received a standing ovation for his heartfelt remarks.

The celebration ended with a recognition of Mr. Johnston's birthday on May 12

The event ended with a closing drumming ceremony from Drummers from Home and a surprise for guests. Each table was adorned with chocolate cupcakes in recognition of Mr. Johnston’s birthday on March 12. To celebrate these milestone anniversaries and the birthday of a remarkable man, guests sang Happy Birthday to ‘Uncle Jimmy,’ as he was known to his family.

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