Stalwarts served the community quietly

By RON FANFAIR

Two prominent elders of Toronto’s Black community have died during the past week.

Lawyer, Edsworth Searles, 87, was a founding member of the Negro Citizenship Association (NCA) in 1951 and the first Black lawyer to be called to the British Columbia Bar in 1958.

Gwendolyn Johnston and her late husband, Leonard, established Third World Books and

Crafts, which was an important intellectual and cultural institution in North America. Leonard Johnston died in April 1998.

After Searles graduated from the University of Toronto Law School, he was forced to work full-time on the railroad for five years because law firms refused to hire him, claiming that clients would not want a Negro attorney to represent them. He was also unable to buy a house in downtown Toronto because of his race.

“When I applied for a loan, the bank asked me if I had a White guarantor,” Searles, who also was employed with the postal service, once recalled.

Backed into a corner by racism, Searles joined the late Don Moore and his fight against discriminatory practices, often accompanying Moore to immigration officials’ offices on urgent cases. He also did research for the NCA and served as the organization’s second secretary before he was called to the B.C. Bar and the Ontario Bar in 1959.

Searles, along with lawyer, Charles Roach, human rights activist, Bromley Armstrong, and a few others founded the Black Investment Group in 1972.

“The domestics that came from the Caribbean had saved their earnings and passed (them) on to a businessman who they wanted to set up a co-op for them,” said Armstrong. “At the time, we did not think a co-op would work so we established this investment group and bought a building in Guelph that was rented to students. Ed was very pivotal in this organization and he did a lot of work.”

Following the difficulties he faced in securing a loan to purchase a home, Searles helped many individuals in Toronto’s Black community secure mortgages to buy homes.

“This was something he did very quietly and I don’t even think his family members are aware of this,” said historian and curator, Dr. Sheldon Taylor. “He was a very humble man who did not make a lot of noise about anything he did. Ed was a very bright man who took credit for absolutely nothing. He did not put his name on anything that was created in this community. He was also a good family man who loved life.”

Searles’ wife of 61 years, Kathleen, passed away last December.

Born at home in 1915 on Lippincott Street in Toronto, Gwen Johnston attended King Edward School and Central Technical School, where she was the only Black student in most of her classes.

She married Leonard in 1937 and they established Canada’s first Black bookstore – Third World Books and Craft – on Walton St. in 1968. They later moved the store to Bay St. and then to its final location on Bathurst St. In its prime, the bookstore attracted many celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Randy Weston. The late Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley, launched A History of West Indies Cricket (First edition) at the store.

“Gwen’s family were pioneers in entrepreneurship in the early 20 century,” said historian Taylor. “That meant that she had a background in business that served her and the business very well and helped raise the level of awareness in our community in a huge way.”

Gwendolyn Johnston’s grandmother – Rosetta Amos-Richardson – owned a restaurant and several properties in the city.

Even though Third World could not compete with the big book stores, Johnston relished the unique role their business held as a place for people of African ancestry and others to learn about the continent and African people’s many gifts to the world.

“It’s worth it because we feel that we have been instrumental in our people learning about themselves,” she once said. “When we were children and sat in school, there was nothing taught about the wonderful history of Africa, nothing about what Black people had contributed to the world. Can you imagine that? They just tried to cut us out of history and so we feel that in a small way, we’ve been able to open these doors.”

Gwendolyn and Leonard Johnston were jointly awarded Harry Jerome awards in the President’s category in 1997.

Ontario Black History Society president, Rosemary Sadlier, said both Searles and Johnston achieved a lot in their own quiet way without much fanfare.

“These were people who did not get the recognition they duly deserved for what they did,” she said. “In my opinion, this is one of the shortcomings of the Black community in that it has failed to affirm and award its own sufficiently. There are so many who have passed on without the level of praise and exultation they richly deserve. Gwen and Ed are in that category.”

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