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By Irvine Carvery
Most references to the founding of the community of Africville say it was started by refugees of the War of 1812. These new Black immigrants, who were former slaves in the Chesapeake area of the United States, had fought for the British Crown, with the promise of freedom for their participation. When the war ended they were relocated to Nova Scotia. The story goes that upon arrival, many of the refugees were settled in Preston, outside of Halifax, while a few found their way to the land that became known as Africville.
The oral history of the community as told by my great-grandfather to me while we sat on my grandmother's sun porch differed greatly. At the time (around 1960), my great-grandfather was in his nineties, meaning that he was born around 1870. His own grandparents, from whom he learned the oral history, would have been born around 1800. My great-grandfather told us stories about "them thar' people," and would point to an area of the community and talk about how these people were different from the other people of Africville, how they kept to themselves, and how the men were in the military because they had uniforms with bright shiny buttons.
As a young child, these stories fascinated me. But when I became older and started to research the history of our community, I came across the journals and writings of Governor John Wentworth who was governor from 1792 to 1808, the period when the Jamaican Maroons came to Nova Scotia. Wentworth housed the majority of the Maroons in the Preston area, but did move several of the Maroon families to two other areas, Maroon Hill and, in 1798 (well before the War of 1812), the shores of Bedford Basin. The Bedford Basin settlement became known as Africville.
In fact, the people of Africville themselves have their own belief about the community's origins: the community was started at the founding of Halifax in 1749 by those Black slaves that the British brought over to clear and farm the land. If this is true, then Blacks began living in Africville a full 50 years earlier than historians claim Africville began. This makes sense in the light of Wentworth's settling Maroons there. He moved them to where there was an existing Black community.
From the very beginning, the people of Africville lived in a society that was overtly racist toward people of African descent. While it was within Halifax's city boundaries, Africville was nevertheless separated from its mainstream—first by being a Black community in a white society, and second by its physical location: it was distant from the core of the city. As a result, the development of Africville was ignored by city planners, as historical accounts by Black and white writers, and by the residents themselves, reveal. From the start, Africville was always on its own.
From the middle of the 19th century, the city of Halifax experienced an industrial boom and its population more than doubled between 1851 and 1915. Africville felt the negative brunt of this development. The city permitted industrial growth along the shores of Bedford Basin to encroach on the residential area of Africville. A bone-meal plant that manufactured fertilizer was constructed just a few hundred metres from the settlement. A cotton factory, a rolling mill/nail factory, a slaughterhouse and a port facility for handling coal completed the first ring of encirclement.
In the 1850s, railroad tracks were laid straight through the community, and land was expropriated from Africville residents for this purpose. They learned to live with this intrusion, even though the railroad failed to put up crossing signals where the residents had to cross the tracks to get from one side of the community to the other. The Halifax Civic Planning Commission recognized that these developments produced "blight and decay spreading over large areas, thereby resulting in serious reduction of residential values," yet they took no steps to prevent this deterioration of the community.
Moreover, racism and the Africville residents' lack of economic or political influence made the area a choice location for city service facilities not wanted elsewhere. The city closed its sewage disposal pits in the south end of Halifax and relocated them to the edge of Africville in 1858. An Infectious Diseases Hospital was built on a hill overlooking the community in the 1870s, followed by a Trachoma Hospital in 1905. Such developments continued into the 20th century, with a stone-crushing plant and an abattoir built on the edges of the settlement. Finally, the city moved the large open city dump, labelled a health menace by the city council and resisted by residents in other areas, to a site just 100 metres from the westernmost group of Africville homes.
Halifax city council minutes clearly indicate that, in addition to using the area for facilities not tolerated in other (white) neighbourhoods, the eventual industrial use of Africville lands was planned. As Halifax was experiencing industrial expansion, the city council adopted several resolutions to expropriate the Africville lands. While for one reason or another these resolutions were not acted upon, the city's policy was spelled out in the following response to an interested business in 1915:
The Africville portion of Campbell Road will always be an industrial district and it is desirable that industrial operations should be assisted in any way that is not prejudiced to the interest of the public; in fact, we may be obliged in the future to consider the interests of industry first.
Thus the records show that the city fathers saw Africville as a place to be expropriated for the city's use—something that could be done because the Africvilleans were Black and poor. These residents had no social, political or economic power to stop the city from using their community as a dump, in every sense, and from taking their land.
Africville families had, over the years, petitioned the city of Halifax for such modern amenities as running water, sewage disposal, paved roads, garbage removal, electricity, street lights, police services and even a cemetery, but they were refused. The residents sent numerous petitions to city council asking for assistance to bring their community up to standard, including the issuance of building permits to meet the city's building codes and bylaws—all to no avail. Therefore, it did not come as a surprise that in the 1950s the city began to discuss bulldozing Africville and relocating its residents. City council claimed that Africville was a "slum" and an "eyesore." The council spent little time discussing its plans with the people of Africville, and simply informed the residents that their community would be demolished. The people of Africville pleaded with the city to help them upgrade their community instead of destroying it, but it was not to be.
Between 1965 and 1970, the community of Africville was bulldozed. The first building to be destroyed was the community church—and this happened at three o'clock in the morning. Some residents had their homes demolished while they were ill in the hospital. Others were given only a few hours to pack their belongings before the bulldozers roared in. Africville disappeared and its people scattered—some into public housing in Halifax, and others to different areas of the province. Our lives would never be the same again.
Ironically, the city fathers never used Africville land for industrial purposes. Today, the site is now an under-used park called Seaview Gardens Memorial Park. Seaview used to be the name of the Africville Baptist Church. Many Africvilleans now believe that the city council had no plans to turn Africville into an industrial site, and that racism was at the heart and soul of the destruction of Africville. Their belief is that the city fathers simply wanted to remove from the urban community of Halifax a concentrated mass of Black people for whom they had no regard. Because of the city's continued negative response to the people of Africville, the community failed to develop, and this failure was used as a rationale to destroy it.
The attitude of white Haligonians to Africville is reflected in the following newspaper announcement as the community was being bulldozed:
"Soon Africville will be but a name. And in the not too distant future that too, mercifully, will be forgotten."
Like other aspects of our Black history, the idea was to erase Africville from memory. But that has not happened. Africvilleans and their descendants have kept the name and history of Africville alive and today there is a thriving Africville Genealogical Society working toward that end.
I have provided this background so that readers can have a better understanding of the conditions of life in Africville. Most of the pictures show homes that have since been torn down or abandoned. A close look at the architectural style will reveal that they were similar or identical to styles used for homes in most rural areas of the province. One picture shows a young girl beside a cement foundation, which was left there by the City of Halifax when they tore down the old Africville school and created this obvious safety hazard. This illustrates, once again, the total disregard for the residents of the community.
We believe that a great wrong occurred when Africville was destroyed. Members of the Africville Genealogical Society attended the United Nations World Conference against Racism in South Africa in 2001 and presented to the Plenary. Coming out of this conference was a Special Rapporteur appointed to audit member states in their fight against racism. This rapporteur, Mr. Doudou Diene, came to Canada at the invitation of our government and met with various non-governmental organizations and with the Africville Genealogical Society. In his report he recommended that the people of Africville be compensated for past injustices. We will continue the struggle.