The Forgotten Ones

It is our last day of holidays here in Halifax so we check our ‘to do’ list. We notice that there is still one place that we haven’t visited, so my sister-in-law and I head out one last time going up and down the hilly streets of Halifax. This time though, we head south toward Bedford Basin. We pass the shipyards and follow along the shore for quite a distance. When we see the large park and railway crossing we know we have almost reached our destination. We see the sign and turn in. As we exit the car, we can smell the salt air and can hear the waves perform their rhythmic dance as they beat against the shore. But Listen!  I hear voices-softly, in the distance.

“Oh  Africville, Africville
No more can I call you my home
Oh Africville, Africville
I want to go home.”

Suddenly, we are taken back in time, for we are standing on the land that once was Africville.

It’s a soulful song they sing for only those who once lived here truly understand and remember the spirit of this place. It is the reason that every year they pilgrimage here, and for three days once again breathe in the memories of what was once theirs.

Black Loyalists came from the United States after the War of 1812 seeking refuge and employment. They had pledged their allegiance to Britain for the promise of land and freedom. but when the Americans won the war they had to leave. More than 3,000 came to Nova Scotia and settled in communities all across the province.  Men worked as labourers, dock stevedores, railway porters, bootleggers, and factory workers. Women also worked in factories, did domestic work, were seamstresses and worked in institutions such as hospitals. These jobs were sometimes supplemented by farming both vegetable and livestock, fishing, and dealing in scrap metal which was collected from the nearby dump.

Only about 400 Black people ever lived in Africville at one time. Those who did were seeking privacy and a place away from the racial prejudice they faced outside their community. And they lived there for 150 years until their community was razed and the population relocated. They were once a vibrant community, but the basic services due to them were never delivered as promised. Even though they paid taxes, the people of Africville were basically forgotten.  They had no running water, sewage or fire services, no street lights, no paved roads, police, ambulance or educational assistance. Despite the lack of these basic services, the people were self-sufficient and hard-working.  And although life was difficult, the children lived a more-less normal life. They went to school, attended church, played softball in the summer and hockey in the winter.  And adults watched out for each other’s children as if they were their own, which reminds me of the old adage, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.

After WWI, with industry expanding, the city began to encroach on the area of Africville. Because Africville was on the waterfront near a port, and a railway already there, the city of Halifax began to view it as future prime real estate. In the meantime, being on the fringe of the city and out of sight from the general public, distasteful places and institutions were located there including a slaughterhouse, garbage dump, jail, and hospital for infectious disease.

When the members of the community began to fear that their land might be in jeopardy, they enlisted the advice of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) who understood the legalities involving legal rights and civil liberties. Following the advice of the CLC, the residents of Africville began to mobilize by starting the Africville Ratepayers Association and later by establishing the Halifax Human Rights Advisory Board.  Unfortunately, by this time, because of the neglect and disregard for the needs of the people of Africville, it was too late, as it was now being considered by many as a slum or ghetto – an embarrassment to the city, and the people of Halifax demanded something be done.  Ironically, the politicians felt that it was their duty to ‘save the people from themselves’ claiming that Africville was no longer fit for living and was declared an industrial zone. The community was levelled. Not a building was left intact and nothing saved except the hand-hewn sign which had once proudly announced the community of Africville. This sign now has its rightful place as you enter the museum.

The people were relocated to other parts of the city, their pleas disregarded. Obviously, no one making the decision to destroy Africville had considered the social bonds of the community or understood the legacy of the people who lived there.

To ensure that the community of Africville is not forgotten, The African Genealogy Society (AGS) was created in 1983 by a small group of former Africville residents. Thanks to them, their work resulted in having the park designated as a National Historic Park in which a beautiful sundial monument stands in memory of those who once called Africville home.  This group also reached a settlement with the city which included a public apology and the funds to rebuild a replica of the Seaview Baptist Church which had been the centre for both their spiritual and social life. The church now acts as a museum and because of it, along with the work of the AGS organizing conferences and workshops, the stories of the people of Africville live on. But this is just the beginning as The Africville Heritage Trust is planning an Interpretive Centre to allow more space for exhibits and for programming. Although the demolition of Africville was the end of their community, the replica of the original church represents the spirit of a people who never gave up and who have chosen to rise above hatred and seek reconciliation.

I am a proud Canadian, but as I learned more about Africville and thought of other Canadian people groups who have also been wronged in the past, I felt a deep sadness and remorse. But like an angry word spoken in haste can’t be retrieved, neither can we change the past. Yet, I have hope that we are learning by our mistakes and are working towards respecting each other and finding ways to live in harmony and that true reconciliation can finally be reached, not just in Canada but around the world.

*Refrain  (From a song written by Ruth Johnson, reproduced in The Spirit of Africville (Formac Halifax 1992), p.105

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