Monday, July 26, 2010

"Ethelbert Lionel Cross: Toronto's First Black Lawyer"


Susan Lewthwaite, "Ethelbert Lionel Cross: Toronto's First Black Lawyer" in Constance Backhouse & W. Wesley Pue, The Promise and Perils of Law: Lawyers in Canadian History (Irwin Law, 2009)

There's an interesting historical connection in the fact that Lionel Cross, Toronto's first Black lawyer, was also the defense lawyer in Canada's most famous blasphemy trial, the 1927 case R. v. Sterry. The connection is not purely a coincidence, however, as Cross was drawn to defend other minorities deemed, for whatever reason, as not worthy of belonging to "mainstream" Canada. Susan Lewthwaite's excellent article profiles Cross' life as a journalist, soldier, and crusading lawyer until his (possibly unwarranted) disbarment in 1937. Lewthwaite argues that "Cross was an 'outsider' in the Toronto legal profession not only because of his race, but also because of his immigrant status and his views on religion . . . Cross neither kept a low profile, nor did he attempt to join the rank of the city's elite. Cross remained an 'outsider,' and from that position consistently held virtually all of the entrenched local authorities--the police, the judiciary, the criminal law, and the church--to account." (p. 194)

Cross was counsel to the Rationalist Society, and thus it was natural that he would represent one of its members, Ernest Victor Sterry, against charges of blasphemous libel. Lewthwaite covers several interesting aspects of Cross' life in the article, but her description of the Sterry trial is of particular value to readers interested in the regulation of blasphemy in Canadian history. Although I wrote an account of the Sterry trial in Canadian Blasphemy Law in Context: Press, Legislative, and Public Reactions, Lewthwaite's article contains several points that I hadn't known before, including:

* Cross seems to have been a rationalist himself, and spoke at least twice at Rationalist Society meetings. (p. 201)

* American Rationalist Association chapters sent money to help with the defense, but its unclear whether the talk of Clarence Darrow attending the trial was ever anything more than a rumor. (pp. 206-207)

* Sterry would not swear on the Bible before taking the stand (p. 204). The article also contains a much fuller description of his testimony than I was able to find (p. 211)

* And most importantly, Sterry was never deported! How he escaped that fate is unclear, but he lived in Toronto for at least several years after the trial. (pp. 214-215)

Although "Ethelbert Lionel Cross: Toronto's First Black Lawyer" isn't available online, it's certainly worth tracking down for its profiles of both the lawyer and his most famous trial.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! I found your article very interesting and will check out this further information. I'm a grad student at Queen's University researching the social & political history of atheism in pre-war 20th century Canada. It seems as though the mid-twenties were an exciting time for clashes between atheists, fundamentalists and modernists. Or at the very least such clashes were well-publicized at the time because, as you mention in your article, the Scopes Trial was still much in the air.

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