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THEN AND NOW: From firsts to forever – Exhibit showcasing black community firsts to become permanent part Yarmouth County Museum

Yarmouth artist Tootsie Emin created several paintings highlighting firsts and other lasting impressions involving members of the black community in Yarmouth. Her work will now become a permanent exhibit at the Yarmouth County Museum. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
Yarmouth artist Tootsie Emin created several paintings highlighting firsts and other lasting impressions involving members of the black community in Yarmouth. Her work will now become a permanent exhibit at the Yarmouth County Museum. TINA COMEAU PHOTO - Tina Comeau
YARMOUTH, N.S. —

It started out as one painting.

A first.

But after that ‘first,’ there were many more to share. And so she kept on painting.

It was a year ago that Yarmouth artist Tootsie Emin had painted 18 paintings for an African Heritage Month display at the Western Branch of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Yarmouth.

Much of those paintings highlighted members of the black community from Yarmouth who have achieved ‘firsts’ – be it in Yarmouth or beyond.

After the display ended, the paintings went back into Emin’s gallery inside her home.

“For a year now, the exhibit has been sitting down here in Tootsie’s studio and no one can see it unless they come here,” says Sharon Robart-Johnson, chair of the Black Heritage Fundraising committee.

But this is about to change.

The Yarmouth County Historical Society has been supported by African Nova Scotian Affairs and the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, allowing for the purchase of the exhibit.

Coastal Financial Credit Union, Yarmouth Area Community Fund and Yarmouth Recreation are other grant sources in this project.

The work will now be on permanent display at the Yarmouth County Museum. A target opening is March 16.

Nadine Gates, director/curator of the museum, could not be more pleased.

“It’s preserving a piece of culture for Yarmouth County. There are a lot of firsts represented in her exhibit of paintings, so this is an amazing thing for us to be able to get,” Gates says.

Stephen Sollows and Sharon Robart-Johnson next to a painting of the Missionaires created by artist Tootsie Emin. Below the painting are military photographs that are also part of an African Heritage exhibit. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
Stephen Sollows and Sharon Robart-Johnson next to a painting of the Missionaires created by artist Tootsie Emin. Below the painting are military photographs that are also part of an African Heritage exhibit. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

HOW IT STARTED

Asked how the exhibit came about, Emin says she was asked if she would create a painting for an exhibit. She thought it was just something needed as a backdrop for an afternoon talk.

But in the back or her mind, Emin had always wanted to celebrate African Nova Scotia firsts in Yarmouth through paintings, while also acknowledging others who have left a lasting impression.

Once she started painting, she couldn’t stop.

She started with a military painting, featuring Sgt. William Lawrence. When she showed the painting to Yarmouth residents Sharon Robart-Johnson, Bruce Johnson and Chuck Smith, she told them, “I’ve always wanted to do an exhibit. I think I’m going to keep on painting.”

Her next painting was of the musical group The Missionaires.

She then enlisted Robart-Johnson’s help in delivering letters to people, seeking permission to use their images in her paintings.

“One woman I asked, her mother had already passed, and tears were coming down her face,” Robart-Johnson says. “And when she saw the painting she cried.

“It ran the gamut of the emotions,” Robart-Johnson says, referring to the people who were approached.

Stephen Sollows and Sharon Robart-Johnson next to a painting of the Missionaires created by artist Tootsie Emin. Below the painting are military photographs that are also part of an African Heritage exhibit. TINA COMEAU PHOTO
Stephen Sollows and Sharon Robart-Johnson next to a painting of the Missionaires created by artist Tootsie Emin. Below the painting are military photographs that are also part of an African Heritage exhibit. TINA COMEAU PHOTO

Emin, meanwhile, literally found herself painting at all hours of the day.

“I’d get up and Fred (her husband) would say, ‘You’re not getting up?’ It was 4:30 or 5 in the morning,” she says with a smile.

“It wasn’t work. It was enjoyment. Living here and having our business, this area was the business section of Yarmouth and at one time and it was mostly a black community,” says Emin. “We had Fred Emin’s Grocery Store, most of these people were patrons of our business and we owe them for what we have today.”

Peter Eldridge, president of the Yarmouth County Historical Society, says they are extremely pleased that Emin’s work will be a permanent feature of the museum. Likewise, says Stephen Sollows, a member of the Black Heritage Fundraising committee, whose expertise in grant applications helped the society in securing funding for the exhibit. A new exhibit space is also being prepped and designed at the museum to showcase the paintings. Sollows says there are many cultures already represented at the museum. This permanent exhibit greatly adds to this.

“I hope that perhaps this might, as well, serve as an example for kids when they go into the museum to recognize that their family or their culture is represented,” he says. “Maybe they’ll want to be RCMP members, educators, pharmacists, nurses. Maybe they’ll say, ‘If they could do it, so can I.’”


Sgt. William Lawrence and a military theme is depicted in one of the paintings
Sgt. William Lawrence and a military theme is depicted in one of the paintings

MORE ABOUT THE EXHIBIT

Some of those from Yarmouth featured include:

• Bruce Johnson: the first black pharmacist in Nova Scotia to graduate from Dalhousie’s School of Pharmacy in 1974.

• Clarence Limeon Bodden: the first black Nova Scotian to enter the RCMP (1970) and the second in Canada attaining the rank of corporal before his retirement in 2008.

• Sharon Robart-Johnson: the first in Nova Scotia, and possibly Canada, to write a book about blacks in Yarmouth titled Africa’s Children, A History of Blacks in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

• Donna (Smith) Darrell: RN, NP, retired. Born in Yarmouth, graduated with her nursing degree from Chatham Public General Hospital, Chatham, Ontario in 1969 and Nurse Practitioner Diploma from McMaster University, Hamilton Ontario 1973. Became the first black nurse practitioner in Nova Scotia.

• Alfaretta (Berry) Anderson: believed to be the first black teacher in Yarmouth. Taught at the Greenville one-room school from 1927 until its closure in 1958. She taught at Arcadia Consolidated School until she retired.

• Prince Albert Best: the first black principal of a school in Yarmouth town and county – Yarmouth Junior High School. When that school closed, the building was used for adult learning and other uses and was renamed the P.A Best Centre.

• Don Berry: Principal of former Yarmouth Junior High School and principal of Yarmouth Consolidated Memorial High School. He is now the first black town councillor in Yarmouth, having been elected in 2016.

Others in the paintings include:

• Kenneth Fells

• Chuck Smith

• Ada (Crawford) Fells

• Steven Lawrence Brewer

• Yarmouth-born Black Boxers

• The Missionaires

CHURCHES

Churches included with images of ministers:

• Greenville United Baptist Church: First black church in Yarmouth town and county. Opened its doors May 15, 1853.

• Disney Chapel: later known as Rose of Sharon and Sharon Assembly – opened its doors Nov. 4, 1877 on East Street in the town.

MILITARY

• Photos of men from first and second world wars and merchant marine. (48 photographs)

• William Lawrence – Sgt. (Military) – in painting depicting both world wars.

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