(EDITOR’S NOTE: This story appears differently from the original one that was posted, due to a technical glitch)
When it comes to trail blazers in their community, New Glasgow’s Aleta Williams stands tall.
Now in her 90s, Williams shrugs off any accolades or admiration for the trails she has blazed or the work that she has done; she just smiles and nods her head when her many accomplishments are listed off as if to say, “Yes, what about it?”
Born in Halifax, Edna Aleta Theadora (Johnston) Williams grew up in a time when racism was rampant. Blacks were not permitted to hold the same types of jobs as whites or eat at all restaurants.
By the time she moved to New Glasgow, a young black hair stylist by the name of Viola Desmond had already challenged racial segregation at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow for refusing to leave the whites-only section in 1946. She was jailed and unjustly prosecuted for tax evasion but was subsequently pardoned, posthumously, in 2010. In 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to be featured on the front of a banknote; her face will appear on the $10 bill in 2018.
Williams was well acquainted with Desmond from their years together in Halifax.
Always a hard worker, Johnston, as she was at the time, met the man she would later marry when she was working at the dockyards in Halifax. After high school, she attended Maritime Business College, graduating with a secretarial diploma. She was the first black woman to hold the job she had in the dockyard treasury office, although she points out there was another black women who later worked in another department.
Aleta Johnston was organist and choir director at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church when she and Murray Williams were introduced by the minister’s wife. She was also a Sunday school teacher, CGIT and BYPU officer.
“I met Murray at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.” Just saying the name of her late husband still brings a sparkle to her eyes.
Murray was attending Second United Baptist Church in New Glasgow at the time and his music group was visiting the Halifax church.
“He had a quartet and they asked me to accompany them.”
And the rest is history. She moved to New Glasgow in 1949, on her wedding day, and they raised seven children: Murleta, Norma, Marty, Charla, Renny, Kerry and Julia. Murray worked at the Foundry in New Glasgow and later at the CNR as a dining car steward when he passed away when the couple’s youngest child was just barely a teenager.
When Williams came to New Glasgow, she had been president of the Comrade Club of the YWCA and its Senior Council in Halifax as well as being involved in other Y endeavours. She took a leadership role here in bringing a Y to town, then became involved in home and school associations when her children were in school. Church involvement was apropos. She formed the Mixed Chorus of the Second United Baptist Church which she directed and accompanied; she also directed the church’s Men’s Brotherhood Choir and has the honour of being the only female member in 1995 and was their treasurer. She was also organist and choir director in other churches throughout Pictou County,
In addition to raising her family, Williams also worked outside the home. Her first job in New Glasgow was with the Presbyterian Maritime Secretary Office in the former Maritime Building. She also recalled working part-time in the office at Thompson & Sutherland.
“I was making $1 an hour and that was good money in those days,” the diminutive Williams smiled.
Her next, and final job, was with what was then The Evening News in New Glasgow. She was the first indigenous black Nova Scotian to be employed with a mainstream media outlet. New Glasgow’s Dr. Carrie Best had owned and operated her own newspaper, The Clarion and had also started a radio show, The Quiet Corner.
Williams worked first assisting the newspaper’s family editor then took over that role several months into it. She had two weekly columns — Girl Friday and Chatter Corner — covering everything from recipes to first-person interviews and current events. She spent 20 years on staff at the newspaper and when she retired, she continued to write columns on a regular basis; she was well into her 80s when she retired.
Throughout her years, Williams has also held offices with the African United Baptist Association, AUBA Woman’s Institute. Black United Front of Nova Scotia, Pictou County Council of Churches, Pictou County Interracial Society, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pictou County, United Way of Pictou County, Pictou County Seniors Festival, Aberdeen Hospital Palliative Care. She has received awards from the Black Cultural Centre, United Way GRIOT Award, Pictou County Music Festival, Cultural Heritage Award from the Town of New Glasgow …
Williams has been a busy lady indeed. She has kept busy since the day she was born! And that’s just how she likes it.
Sitting in her home perched on top of a snow-covered hill near New Glasgow’s reservoir, Williams reflects on the life she’s led, the connections she’s made and the people she’s mentored and influenced.
There was no time for negative thoughts or actions in her life. She’s been too busy raising her family, getting involved in her community and doing Christian work.
Racism? She pauses before answering: “I was so busy I didn’t have time to fraternize outside of my own circle. I never gave it any thought, but I remember my father saying ‘Treat people as you find them and work for what you want’.”