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Original title:  James Alexander Ross Kinney. Image courtesy of the Nova Scotia Archives, used with permission.

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KINNEY, JAMES ALEXANDER ROSS, stenographer, publicist, and orphanage superintendent; b. 25 Feb. 1879 in Yarmouth, N.S., son of James Kinney and Charlotte Forest Woodhouse; m. first 23 July 1906 Mary Sarah Allison (d. 1908) in Halifax; m. secondly 30 Aug. 1909 Nettie Alexandra Fidelia (Dorothy) Martin (d. 6 Sept. 1923) in Amherst, N.S., and they had a son and a daughter; a stepdaughter predeceased him; d. 6 Nov. 1940 in Halifax.

After James A. R. Kinney’s father, a barber, died in Yarmouth in 1881, his mother returned to Halifax, her native city, where she supported her family through dressmaking. On his graduation in 1897 from the Halifax Commercial College after its amalgamation with the Halifax Business College (in which he may have initially enrolled), Kinney worked as a stenographic clerk in the law office of John Thomas Bulmer*, who had long been an advocate for improving the status of black Nova Scotians. He left Bulmer’s employ about the same time that James Robinson Johnston*, the province’s first black lawyer, joined the firm (probably in 1900 or 1901). He took up a position as a stenographer with Leslie, Hart and Company, a seafood broker and wholesaler; from 1902 he continued in this role with William Stairs, Son and Morrow, a long-established firm specializing in hardware, building supplies, and ship chandlery then presided over by William James Stairs*. Promoted to advertising manager in 1913, Kinney reached prospective customers by advertisements in the press and letters to particular categories of clients. He branded the company “Eastern Canada’s Supply House” and varied slogans to suit the item being featured. In 1925 a Halifax Herald story suggested that, as a respected and successful white-collar worker, “Mr. Kinney has proved the fallacy of the oft-heard remark that it is hard for a colored boy to make good.”

Kinney’s other activities flowed from his determination to better the prospects of black Nova Scotians. Identifying the African Baptist church as key to his goal, he had become a member of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church as a teenager, although his mother was a Methodist and his marriages were conducted according to Methodist rite. Kinney’s accomplishments enabled him to step into Johnston’s shoes as the lay leader of the local black community after the latter’s untimely death on 3 March 1915. Within a month he was leading the men’s Bible class of his church, striving to foster “spiritual uplift” and inculcate “race pride.” In the late summer the Reverend Moses B. Puryear, who revitalized the church between 1909 and 1918, seized on Kinney’s “practical business ability,” appointing him chair of a new committee charged with putting “all departments of the church on a sound working basis.” Kinney went as a delegate in 1915 to his first meeting of the African Baptist Association; by March 1916 he had become a church trustee. In 1917, after two years of assisting and substituting for William Andrew White (who would succeed Puryear), he took over as secretary, also styled clerk, of the ABA, which was renamed the African United Baptist Association in 1919. He held this important lay position until 1922 and again between 1929 and 1939; he was treasurer at the time of his death. At both the congregational and the provincial levels he was engaged in a perennial struggle to overcome the church’s financial problems and inspire confidence and ideas of responsible citizenship in African Nova Scotians. He worked hard to promote respect for education, participation in social welfare, and activism by black women. During World War I he helped recruit black men for military service; two of his brothers-in-law enlisted. In 1916 he served as secretary of the new Afro-Canadian Improvement Society.

Kinney emerged as a major advocate for an educational institution specifically for black children, a project that had been dear to Johnston’s heart. He and his associates were interested in the ideas of black self-reliance embodied in the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. Kinney conferred with its founder, Booker Taliaferro Washington, in Halifax during August 1915, and in an admiring letter written a month later he likened himself to a product of the institute. Plans for the establishment of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children went through several changes between its incorporation in 1915 and the opening of the facility on 6 June 1921. Initially, the aim was to provide vocational and technical training based on the Tuskegee model, but the local black community did not have the necessary resources. Moreover, the plight of homeless children demanded attention: Puryear deplored the condition of “citizens of African descent” in Halifax and argued for “a simple home” for “little children whose outlook was so hopeless it was impossible they could grow into decent citizens.” The lack of facilities for black children in need of care, whose number increased following the Halifax explosion on 6 Dec. 1917, suggested that a welfare institution should take priority over an educational one. (The building intended for a school was destroyed in the catastrophe.) The decision to focus on an orphanage with a school, rather than a school with a trades orientation, proved to be irreversible. In the end, the poverty experienced by African Nova Scotians during the post-war depression of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s precluded the possibility of reviving the earlier, more ambitious project, a matter of regret to Kinney.

He threw himself into the development of the home, first as a trustee and the secretary of the interracial Board of Trustees appointed in October 1917, and later as a director, secretary-treasurer, member of the Construction and Improvement Committee, and paid superintendent. On just over 200 acres in Westphal (Dartmouth) purchased for the project by the Nova Scotia government despite protests by local white residents, a commodious and handsome house was built with the aid of a $10,000 provincial grant and funds raised by Kinney and others. Staff included a matron, a teacher, and workers for the house and the farm. The children, usually numbering between 35 and 45, helped with domestic duties and outdoor chores to prepare them for employment as servants and labourers. Initially the home’s residents were pre-teenagers who had lost one or both parents, but by the late 1930s almost one-third were adolescents and about half were categorized as “illegitimate.” During the first decade some 100 children were cared for; Kinney insisted that all black children, regardless of their background, be accepted. They benefited from the home’s healthy rural location, on-site school, and dedicated staff as well as volunteers from local black neighbourhoods and a benevolent if patronizing public. Kinney worked closely with white Halifax businessman Henry Gibson Bauld, long-time president of the board. In 1925, when he took over the full-time management of the home, Kinney resigned from his advertising position; he may have continued to do some work on the side for William Stairs, Son and Morrow until 1927.

The financial campaigns dating from 1919 show that Kinney used effectively his commercial experience in aid of the home. With public funding, he was able to sustain it through its formative years, although it was never without a substantial capital debt. Brochures give examples of his penchant for slogans, usually combined with an apt photograph. In the early 1930s he quoted a statement he attributed to American president Herbert Clark Hoover, “the human race moves forward on the feet of its children,” and printed an invocation that said, “I am the child … You determine largely whether I shall succeed or fail / Help to train me, I beg you, that I may become a blessing to the world.” Later, positive results were stressed: “For 20 years … One Death and No Major Epidemics – an evidence of unusual care of children intrusted to our care.” The home was a source of pride throughout the Maritimes, and it was praised by government officials in Ottawa and elsewhere.

Kinney’s hope of creating an endowment was not realized. He was, however, successful in encouraging members of the elite to remember the home in their wills, as did, for example, Ella Almon Ritchie and her sister Eliza Ritchie. Tag days, door-to-door canvassing, and entertainments were all used to raise funds. In 1931 he arranged for the radio broadcast of a concert to draw pledges of support by telephone and telegraph, and it became an annual event. Musical himself, he instructed children in guitar and mandolin and took the home’s choir on concert tours. They performed at the United Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces in Wolfville, N.S., some two months before his death from pulmonary oedema resulting from kidney problems.

Kinney had no doubt that the home was the black community’s greatest achievement. The institution continued to profit from his family’s devotion: his daughter, Dorothy, helped look after children, and James Alexander Ross Jr, who had worked on the farm in his youth, succeeded to his father’s position. Although Kinney’s concentration on the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children for the last 19 years of his life may seem a somewhat limited use of his considerable leadership talents, he did what he could in difficult circumstances to promote the welfare of his people with scant regard for his own self-interest. The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, like many other residential institutions, would become mired in controversy over alleged abuse by the end of the 20th century. The victims’ prolonged but successful campaign for vindication and compensation would have been incomprehensible to Kinney and his contemporaries in depression-era Nova Scotia.

Judith Fingard

DUA, MS-4-6 (William Stairs, Son & Morrow fonds), G. LAC, R233-35-2, Halifax, Ward 2: 62; R233-36-4, Halifax, Ward 2b: 12–13; R233-37-6, Halifax, Ward 5e-9: 1. NSA, MG 1, E, vols.3265–77 (Stairs family fonds); MG 3, vol.3877 (William Stairs, Son & Morrow papers); MG 20, vol.535 (Local Council of Women of Halifax fonds, Minute-books); MG 20, vol.159 (vertical file), vol.750 (Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children fonds); “Nova Scotia hist. vital statistics,” Cumberland County, 1909; Halifax County, 1870, 1890, 1906: www.novascotiagenealogy.com (consulted 4 Feb. 2013). Acadian Recorder (Halifax), 24 June 1898; 14, 15, 17, 18 Jan. 1908; 17 Feb. 1912; 6 Sept. 1913; 25 June, 16 Aug. 1915; 6 Sept. 1923; 5 June 1924; 2 June 1925; 27 July 1928; 5 June 1929; 18 March 1930. Halifax Chronicle, 28 May, 7 June 1921; 27 June, 18 July, 21 Aug. 1933. Halifax Herald, 16, 20 March, 21 June, 2 Sept., 24, 31 Oct. 1916; 27 Oct., 13 Nov. 1917; 11 Feb., 25 March, 2 April, 9, 25 July, 3, 10 Dec. 1919; 12 March, 2, 3 April, 20, 31 May 1920; 15 Jan., 17 Feb., 3 March, 2, 7, 17 June 1921; 2 Jan., 27 Feb., 1 April, 2 May 1922; 29 Aug., 10 Dec. 1923; 10 March, 24 July, 8 Dec. 1924; 14, 15 April 1925; 2, 20 July 1926. Halifax Mail, 7, 8 Nov. 1940. Atlantic Advocate (Halifax), 1, no.1 (April 1915): 13; 1, no.11 (May 1917): 6–7. The Booker T. Washington papers, ed. L. R. Harlan and R. W. Smock (Urbana, Ill., 1972–89), 13: 371. Barry Cahill, “The ‘Colored Barrister’: the short life and tragic death of James Robinson Johnston, 1876–1915,” Dalhousie Law Journal (Halifax), 15 (1992): 336–79. Directory, Halifax, 1883–1940. R. N. Lafferty, “Child welfare in Halifax, 1900–1960: institutional transformation, denominationalism, and the creation of a ‘public’ welfare system” (phd thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 2003). P. E. McKerrow, A brief history of the coloured Baptists of Nova Scotia, 1783–1895 (Halifax, 1895; repr., intro. and ed. F. S. Boyd Jr, assisted by M. I. Allen Boyd, 1976). N.S., Office of the Director of Child Welfare, Child welfare: report of the Director (Halifax), 1921–40. A. P. Oliver, A brief history of the colored Baptists of Nova Scotia, 1782–1953 ([Halifax, 1953]). C. R. Saunders, Share & care: the story of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (Halifax, 1994).

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Judith Fingard, “KINNEY, JAMES ALEXANDER ROSS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kinney_james_alexander_ross_16E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/kinney_james_alexander_ross_16E.html
Author of Article:   Judith Fingard
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2016
Year of revision:   2016
Access Date:   April 24, 2024