Nova Scotia

Should Cornwallis Street be renamed for Dr. Alfred Waddell, civil-rights pioneer?

Waddell was a Halifax resident, respected doctor and civil rights pioneer.

Despite facing anti-Black racism, Waddell built a life and career in Halifax

Dr. Alfred Waddell only intended to stay in Halifax for a few years, but ended up making it his permanent home. His grandson says he'd like to see the street where Waddell once practised named in his honour. (Dalhousie University)

As Halifax seeks a new name for Cornwallis Street, one man has suggested it could be named after his grandfather, a former resident and respected doctor and civil rights pioneer.

Dr. Ron Milne said his grandfather, Alfred E. Waddell, was born in Trinidad and Tobago and with his wife, immigrated to study in New York in 1923. He wanted to work as a doctor in Trinidad, which required him to get a medical degree from a university in the British Commonwealth.

That led Waddell to move to Halifax to attend Dalhousie University, becoming one of the first Black people to graduate from the program in 1933.     

"I think his initial impressions were quite negative because when he came to the city he had great difficulty finding a place to stay; nobody would rent to him because of his race," Milne told CBC Radio's Mainstreet

He got a room with family friend, Dr. Ernie Marshall, during his studies, but ran into housing discrimination in Halifax again after graduating. 

Classmates rally to help

Milne said his grandfather was also denied an internship. 

"From what my grandmother told me, that the powers that be did not want him examining white women," Milne said. "His classmates actually threatened to boycott and not complete their internship if he wasn't allowed to intern. As a result, he got an internship at the TB/infectious diseases hospital."

Despite the racism, Waddell decided to stay in Halifax and opened his first practice on Cornwallis and Gottingen streets, in the building that houses the Black Educators Association today. 

Dr. Waddell practised out of this building for many years. It's now home to the Black Educators Association. (Google Streetview)

Milne said his grandfather would borrow a car to pay house visits to Black communities around Halifax, including Africville, Beechville, Hammonds Plains and Preston. Often, his patients had no money and paid him with eggs or chicken. 

"He was a voice for the disadvantaged at a time when that was not a popular cause, because racism and discrimination and segregation were so rampant and so accepted in Canadian and Nova Scotian society," said Milne.

"Not everybody was happy with the things he was doing, but I think he was a very brave guy."

Waddell thought globally and locally when it came to civil rights. When fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1933, he joined a group that raised money to defend the African nation. 

"I have a letter sent back by the Ethiopian minister, thanking them for their help," Milne said. 

And when Black children — including his own — were barred from his local swimming pool while white children swam, Waddell joined the opposition and got that rule removed. 

Friend of Viola Desmond

"Probably the most celebrated thing he did was in helping Viola Desmond," Milne said. "After she was beaten up and arrested, she came to Halifax to see him, because he was her physician."

Waddell treated her injuries and also encouraged her to fight her conviction for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow theatre. He helped her draft letters to the federal and provincial governments, but she was convicted. Decades later, she was given a free pardon

Waddell supported the Clarion, a Black newspaper in Nova Scotia, including writing editorials. His fighting spirit lives on in his descendents, including great-granddaughter Ronda Rousey, the groundbreaking athlete who brought women's MMA to the mainstream. 

"His office was on Cornwallis Street, he served many of the people who lived in that neighbourhood, and he lived in the neighbourhood for a number of years and raised his kids there," Milne said.

"I think it would be a fitting honour for Cornwallis Street to be named after Dr. Waddell."

Halifax is accepting ideas for a new name for the street until Nov. 12.

Dr. Waddell and his wife are buried in Halifax's Camp Hill Cemetery. (Vernon Ramesar/CBC)

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


with files from CBC Mainstreet