Black History Month: Dr. Carrie M. Best, Civil Rights Activist
Arrested for sitting in the ‘wrong’ theatre section with her son, radio host Carrie Best refused to accept racist culture of the era. Best took action and changed society.
It seems unimaginable, even outrageous, in today’s era, but until the mid-20th century in Canada, offensive racism was not rare. A woman and her adult son were seated in the general section of a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia theatre in December 1941 to watch a performance when they were confronted. The two were in the wrong section – a “white only” section – and they were not white. Carrie Best and her son Calbert were taken into custody, “both charged with disturbing the peace, convicted and fined,” said the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in “N.S. activist honoured with stamp.” Refusing to live life unjustly as a lesser human, Carrie Best made civil rights her priority.
Race Riots in Nova Scotia
James and Georgina Ashe Prevoe welcomed the birth of their daughter, Carrie, on March 4, 1903 in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. A creative child, Carrie wrote verse at age four and many letters to the editor expressing her views while in her teen years. There were race riots in the childhood years of Carrie’s life, no doubt instilling a strong sense of integrity and justice in the strong-willed young black woman. Those decades were a difficult time for non-whites and even harder for non-white women. Marrying Albert Best when she was 23 years old, Carrie and her husband had one child, Calbert. “Mrs Best would later become foster mother to Bertha, Emily, Sharon and Aubrey Marshall,” noted the Pictou Regional Library in “Carrie M. Best/A Digital Archive.”
Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow would not permit mixing of races in their establishment. Carrie and her son, Calbert, were arrested in the 1940s for breaking the law by sitting in the “white only” seats. Opposed to the conviction and fine, Carrie took action. In 1946, she established “The Clarion”, the first Nova Scotia newspaper to be owned and published by a black person. It wasn’t long before Carrie had an important issue to present in the pages of the newspaper, the Viola Desmond case.
Desmond Case Overturned Discriminatory Laws
Similar to Best and her son, Viola Desmond, a black businesswoman and beautician in Halifax, was arrested and forced to leave the Roseland Theatre for sitting in the “white only” seats. Black persons were required to sit in a specific balcony reserved for blacks only. The case was taken to court, and Desmond was convicted and fined. Desmond appealed her case to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. “Desmond lost that day, but appealed again and won on a technicality,” said the Pictou Regional Library, “helping topple the Jim Crow laws in Nova Scotia.” Jim Crow laws were an American system of segregation, permitting discrimination against other races.
Carrie Best, Radio Host and Author
A well-spoken woman, Carrie Best moved into radio broadcasting in 1952 with “The Quiet Corner.”
It wasn’t a political show, rather, it was a combination of music and poetry, the kind Best wanted to hear but couldn’t find on any other station. “The Quiet Corner” remained on the air for 12 years, Best sharing her love of poetry and music with many fans.
Writing was still Best’s calling, and in 1968 she was hired by the Pictou Advocate to write a column under the “Human Rights” header. Best used the space not only to promote black rights, but to advance all human rights, and “often spoke out against poor conditions on reserves and discrimination against black property owners,” said CBC. Her remarkable work did not go unnoticed.
Recognition of Carrie Best
On December 18, 1974, Carrie Best was awarded the Member of the Order of Canada, receiving her medal on April 16th the next year. She was given the honour “on behalf of the Negro community in Nova Scotia, in recognition of her zealous work as writer and broadcaster,” noted “It’s an Honour” on The Governor General of Canada page. Five years later on December 17, 1979, Best was promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada for her work as “Humanitarian, of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, who has devoted most of her life to the underprivileged regardless of race, colour, creed or sex, and particularly her own people of the Black community.” She was invested with the Order of Canada on April 16, 1980.
Best became Doctor Carrie Best in 1975 when she was given an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Still an advocate for rights while in her 70s, Best founded the Kay Livingstone Visible Minority Women’s Society of Nova Scotia, an association that helped young black people, and promoted understanding and democracy between races. (It closed in 1994.) In 1992, she received a second Honorary LL.D from the University of Kings College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Many more awards were bestowed upon Best for her dedication to human rights and betterment of lives, to list only a few:
- 1975 African Baptist Association Award
- 1977 Queen Elizabeth Medal
- 1980 Nova Scotia Black Wall of Fame
- 1986 Harry Jerome Award from the Black Business and Professional Association
- 1989 Black Professional Women’s Group Award Certificate
- 1990 Award of Excellence in Race Relations, from Minister of State for Mulitculturalism
- 1991 Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission Award
- 1993 Congress of Black Women Certificate
This year, Canada Post Corporation is celebrating Black History Month with postage stamps honouring athlete Fergie Jenkins and activist Carrie Best. “Carrie Best was a tenacious crusader who fought not only for her own rights,” said the Canada Post announcement, “but also for the rights of other women and minorities throughout her trailblazing career.”
A fine example of the positive impact a single person can have on society, Dr. Carrie Best died on July 24, 2001. She was 98 years of age.
“N.S. activist honoured with stamp,” CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Accessed February 1, 2011
“Carrie M. Best/A Digital Archive,” Pictou Regional Library, Government of Nova Scotia Accessed February 1, 2011
“Carrie Best, O.C., LL.D.,” The Governor General of Canada Accessed February 4, 2011
“Canada Post Celebrates Two Canadian Heroes,” Canada Post Corporation Accessed February 4, 2011
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2011. Copyright Susanna McLeod