Africville may be found in some history books but former residents know this chapter of Canadian black history is not truly over yet.
While people are protesting against anti-Black violence all across the United States and the rest of the world these last two weeks, a “prayerful” protest was held on Sunday evening at Nova Scotia’s Africville Museum. About 200 people attended. The location chosen was of great historical significance to Black Canadians because it was the former site of the community of Africville – where Black families had lived for hundreds of years until its destruction in 1969. The museum church was built after the City of Halifax issued a formal apology 10 years ago.
That apology, however, came only as the result of a legal settlement with some of the former Africville residents in 2010, which included $3 million to rebuild the church as a museum. It did not include any individual compensation to former Africville residents, which was the original intention.
While a statement of claim was first filed in 1996 against the City of Halifax, now part of the amalgamated Halifax Regional Municipality, and the suit was revived over the last several years after amendments to the claim were granted by the court, it was rejected in 2016 and then denied certification in 2018. The city’s lawyer argued that it would be difficult to determine “what the communal lands are and who would be in the class.” According to the judge, the case did not raise common issues that at least two people shared, and he invited the plaintiffs to file again. In January 2019, another class action lawsuit was filed.
Just four months ago – yes, this year – was when the Nova Scotia government announced that a bell that had once hung in an Africville church would be returned and suspended outside the Africville Museum which opened in 2012.
But it was still only seven months ago that former Africville resident, a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, Eddie Carvery’s 50-year protest camp was literally squashed.
The bell announcement came in time for this year’s Nova Scotia Heritage Day because the history of Africville is an enormous part of the Maritime province’s heritage, just as other shameful forms of racism across Canada have been integral to the heritage of our country’s growth. It is more than time for us to recognize that black lives matter in Canada – and for it to be reflected not just in our words or symbolic gestures but in our day-to-day actions.
Former Africvillians and their families have been visiting the area and camping out where their homes had once stood over the decades. Since 1996, a park stands where Africville had once, allowing for former residents to return annually for reunions. The federal government declared it a National Historic Site in Canada in 2002 – that is only 18 years ago. It took over 30 years for this recognition.
The park, which was recently named Africville Park, has been described as “a site of pilgrimage for people honouring the struggle against racism.” At the time of the 2010 announcement, a funding settlement was announced to the Africville heritage society and the city announced its plans to rebuild the church that had once been the centre of the Africville community. That new church museum was constructed in 2012, just eight years ago.
You may be wondering: what was Africville, and what happened to it? In fact, even those who lived in Halifax throughout the 20th century, often were not quite clear about the details of the community’s long history. Part of why it was ultimately destroyed was due to misconceptions from white residents at the time who thought it was a “slum,” built by scavengers around a dump. It is through these kinds of popular – though untrue – myths that racism continues to live in Canada today.
A brief history of Africville
Africville was a community on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia populated, primarily, by Black families for over 200 years. They had lived there since before the official creation of Halifax, right up to forced relocations and its ultimate destruction in 1969. The city of Halifax had been founded in 1749 and at the time, it was actually largely constructed by the physical labour of black slaves. Africville residents were the ones to literally build the original city. They dug out roads and built city structures. Without Africville, Halifax would have been a very different place.
A few kilometres north of Halifax, on the southern shore of the Bedford Basin, was where it is believed the city’s first slaves were kept. This area became what was known as Africville and the first official record of the name “Africville” comes from 1761, when the land was granted to several white families – including ones who were involved in the importation and sale of enslaved African men and women.
Over time, escaped slaves who had been relocated to Jamaica were moved to Africville by the British Government, as well as black refugees from the War of 1812 who had once been slaves in the United States. By the 1830s, the area was nicknamed the “African Village” due to its majority population of Black families. By then, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834 outlawed slavery altogether even though some indentured servitude lived well past those dates in Canada.
In the 1840s, Black settlers started to buy land in Africville and in 1849 Seaview African United Baptist Church was opened to serve the village’s 80 residents. The church was called “the beating heart of Africville” and was the centre of the village to both church-goers and non church-goers, according to a 2014 article by Jon Tattrie in the Canadian Encyclopedia. An official Africville school was only opened in 1883 after the residents had been asking for one for years. In the meantime, children had been taught any school-type lessons by Africville residents.
Around that time – the end of the 19th century – residents were able to make a humble living with their own local fishing businesses, farmsteads and shops, instead of working in Halifax where racism would often stand in the way of employment, advancement or a decent wage for Black people.
Still, Africville residents were required to pay taxes to the City of Halifax. However, even despite decades of petitioning, they did not receive the benefits of paying those taxes. The city would not pave Africville roads, offer running water, electricity, streetlights, a cemetery, or even sewage infrastructure. Until the 1950s, there were no municipal services offered in Africville – no garbage collection, no public transportation, no police. It was a way for the city to make money and then spend it elsewhere – similar to slavery and indentured servitude. Africville was treated as lesser, like a ghetto, and was often referred to as a “slum” by Haligonians and those working for the city, however it was only made a slum by those same people. It was a community where residents received less and were taken from.
For instance, several Africville homes were first expropriated and destroyed in 1854 for a railway extension to be built. The homeowners were not paid for this and many protested that the train was dangerous and polluted their community. This happened again in 1912 and then again through the 1940s. From its beginnings until its end, Africville was a convenient spot for the City of Halifax to tuck away the less attractive and less safe municipal services such as: a prison, human waste pits, an infectious diseases hospital, slaughterhouses and a fertilizer plant.
The 1915 Halifax city council believed Africville would always be an industrial district.
While the Rockhead Prison was built in 1854 and the infectious diseases hospital was built in the 1870s, many of these dangerous or unattractive services continued to be located in Africville even into the 1960s. An open-pit dump was built 350 metres from the western edge of Africville in the 1950s. The city had other locations it had been considering for the dump but all were found to be not suitable. It was considered “a health menace” if the dump would be built in the Fairview area. But it was decided to be built in Africville with no council minutes indicating any concern for the health of these Black residents. Africville “will always be an industrial district,” the 1915 Halifax city council had once said – and the city made it so.
The Canadian Encyclopedia also states that in the 1960s, “many white Halifax residents referred to Africville as a slum built around the dump by scavengers. Seeing Africville as a ‘slum’ formed an important part of the public acceptance of Africville’s destruction.”
From 1947 to 1960, the Halifax City Council had rezoned Africville for more industrial projects and commissioned reports that recommended re-housing residents to allow for these projects. One project that was approved in 1962 – but was then scrapped – was an expressway that would go over Africville to downtown Halifax.
Africville residents made it known to the City of Halifax that they opposed the notion of being relocated. They would have preferred receiving proper resources to improve their living conditions. In a CBC interview in the 60s, homeowner Joe Skinner said, “I think we should have a chance to redevelop our own property as well as anybody else. When you are in this country and you own a piece of property, you’re not a second-class citizen. That’s why my people own this land, they worked for it, they toiled for it. It is land that they own, and they try to hang on to it. But when your land is being taken away from you, and you ain’t offered nothing, then you become a peasant — in any man’s country.”
Despite Africville residents protesting and petitioning against these relocations, Halifax council voted to remove what they described as the “blighted housing and dilapidated structures in the Africville area.” But while the city made promises of “urban renewal” processes where residents would be able to move into better housing in Halifax and would be compensated fairly for their move, it didn’t quite work out that way. Only the land owners who could prove the purchase of their home and land were paid just for that sale’s value. Many Africville residents had been living in homes purchased generations ago so they had no deeds to prove they owned their properties. Some Africville residents received just about $500, or just about enough to pay rent for a few months or put down an initial down-payment elsewhere. Many did not feel adequately compensated and most did not want to relocate.
Several homeowners found that their homes had been bulldozed without their knowledge or permission. Others had only a few hours’ notice before the bulldozers came.”
Still, the city had Africville land expropriated and homes bulldozed lot by lot starting in 1964 until 1969. Some families were even, shamefully, moved out by dump truck when a moving company the city had contracted cancelled. Lot by lot, the expropriation and bulldozing continued for five years, flattening out homes daily.
The Canadian Encyclopedia states, “Several homeowners found that their homes had been bulldozed without their knowledge or permission. Others had only a few hours’ notice before the bulldozers came. One man returned from a hospital stay to find that his house had been destroyed. Many left with what they could carry. The Seaview United Baptist church was destroyed in the middle of the night in the spring of 1967. Many residents saw this as the death knell for the community. Expropriation sped up as residents took what deals they could and left.”
The promise of a new and better home, for the most part, didn’t ever materialize. The small payments that were received were not even close to the renewed upgrade the City of Halifax had promised Africvillians.
With no shared church or communal space for these former Africville residents, they, sadly, ended up drifting apart.
It certainly was not the equivalent of all they had possessed before: owning a whole house, all their possessions, their land, their businesses, their community. With no shared church or communal space for these former Africville residents, they, sadly, ended up drifting apart.
The demise of Africville led to a lot of trauma and economic and social loss in the lives of black Canadians. They moved to other cities in Canada – Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg. They lost the land and homes they had built, and the community roots they had spent their lives building. They lost their church that was the centre of their social lives, along with their school mates, neighbours, friends, relatives and business acquaintances. They lost their sense of home and their livelihoods.
The bridge over Africville was not built but the land was later used for highway ramps to another bridge. The land that had once housed about 400 Africvillians eventually made way for some public housing, a park and the Fairview Container Terminal. However, the park was only created after protests during the 1980s brought back more political attention to the history of Africville. Many black Canadians and former Africville residents felt that, like the 2012 museum and heritage funding, the 2010 apology and the 2020 bell, it was a small symbolic gesture to a much, deeper and larger, still-living tragedy that no small gesture can heal.
One man’s 50-year protest
The destruction of Africville led to one of the longest civil rights protests in Canadian history. In 1970, a former Africville resident, Eddie Carvery, 24, decided to return to the community he had been forced to leave just a few years earlier. He pitched a tent in protest, demanding a public inquiry and compensation for each resident who had been forced to relocate and had lost their homes and lands.
He returned to that site regularly, in protest, with these same demands, for about 50 years, sometimes with family members and sometimes other Black Canadians joined him. He lived in the park on and off for about 25 years during these protests and when the G7 went to Halifax in 1995, he made international news. The City of Halifax had tried to evict Carvery and his brother Victor from the park over the years and so he and his brothers moved over to the Africville land where its school had once stood. Even after the Africville Church was constructed in 2012, Carvery still had his protest camp on the land behind it.
Carvery had, over time, added four trailers to his camp – one of which he lived in when he was protesting – and a large protest sign.
Just last year, in November 2019, El Jones wrote in the Halifax Examiner, that Carvery’s protest camp was dismantled. His hand print protest sign was relocated and his trailer was destroyed. Needless to say, to have his protest home relocated and his possessions destroyed would open old wounds. While the the Africville Geneological Society said the sign would be restored, this was just another instance of Black Canadians and their possessions being disposed of, Carvery felt. He cried while being interviewed with news reporters at the time. Remember: this was just seven months ago.
According to Carvery, now in his seventies, who had had several heart attacks and cancer in recent years while living in poverty, he had made a verbal agreement to the Africville Heritage Society that three of his trailers be removed, but he had specifically asked that the one that held his personal belongings – the one he lived in while protesting – remain on the site for him to continue living in and continue his protesting in. He told CBC in November 2019 that “it hurt more than anything” when he arrived to find a crumpled heap of debris, a back hoe and his fourth trailer in that heap of rubble.
“Before anything else, this is a man’s home and possessions,” El Jones wrote in the Halifax Examiner article. “That they can be wiped out shows the destruction of Africville repeating itself. That this took place despite the city’s 2010 apology for the destruction of Africville shows how little public apologies for historical injustice actually affect the lives of Black people living with the aftereffects of displacement and oppression. We would do well to remember this moment as police chief Dan Kinsella prepares to make another “historic” apology for the racial profiling, criminalization, and violation of Black people and communities.”
El continued: “Beyond the trailers being Carvery’s home, the protest sign is part of Canadian history. It is bad enough that our humanity is not respected enough to treat our possessions with dignity, but our very history and artifacts are discarded like they are garbage.”
Carvery had told CBC at the time that the Africville Heritage Trust had offered to recognize his protest at the museum but he said that it was not enough to ease his pain. Putting it in the museum would mean his protest was over, a part of history that is resolved and no longer active.
Tattrie created a fundraiser page for Carvery at the end of November 2019, which explained that as the 50th anniversary of his peaceful protests about Africville approached, the old activist was facing poverty and had lost his trailers, and that he struggles even to have money just to eat. The Gofundme goal was $10,000 but to date has raised just $263. You can find a link to the donations page here.
Racism has not been solved in Canada. And while Africville may be found in some history books, briefly, framed around the park, the church and the bell as settled resolutions, it is a very, very recent history. It’s not a finished story. There are many whose traumas have not healed. Those who lived in Africville and who were forced to relocate are still living and they still live with the pain and trauma of being treated as lesser and knowing their possessions had little value to white Canadians and the City of Halifax.
Their families still have these memories. People like Carvery are still alive – some in poverty and some with mental health issues because of this mistreatment. Often their rights and their possessions are still viewed as lesser, and their voices are still silenced.
You can read more about Carvery and his Africville protests in Jon Tattrie’s book The Hermit of Africville: the life of Eddie Carvery. As well, the National Film Board has a 35-minute short documentary from 1991 called Remember Africville, which you can watch here.
To learn more about Africville’s history in general, other non-fiction books to read are: The Spirit of Africville by the Africville Geneological Society. For novels, there is Africville My Home by Leslie Carvery and Africville by Jeffrey Colvin. There is also a children’s illustrated book by Shauntay Gray called Africville.
Cover photo: Africville Museum, Wikimedia Commons.
Photo 1: Bob Brooks, courtesy of Nova Scotia archives, CBC footage.
Photo 2: Film still from NFB’s Remember Africville.
Photo 3: From Jon Tattrie’s book The Hermit of Africville.