There was once a community that produced some extremely notable Canadians, that was vibrant and a major part of the history of Nova Scotia. It existed for almost 200 years, until it was wiped off the map. It was a community that dealt with racism, industrial waste and much more.
It was Africville, and its history is one of freedom, struggle and persevering against the odds.
Considered to be one of the first free black communities outside of Africa, the settlement was founded by Black Loyalists, who were former slaves in the American Colonies that escaped their masters and were freed by the British during the American Revolutionary War. The British transported these loyalists to Nova Scotia, providing them land and supplies for their service.
The history of Halifax itself, right next to Africville, is one that centres on the African slaves that dug out the roads and built much of the city. There is some evidence that states those who built the roads lived in the Bedford Basin, which would one day be Africville. There is also evidence that the Maroons of Jamaica settled there.
In 1761, the first official record of the area of Africville appears when land was granted to several white families, who imported and sold African slaves.
The settlers would settle in the area of what would one day be Africville, but Africville was never formally established. In 1836, an access road was built that allowed for access to the north side of the Halifax Peninsula and the first land transaction to be documented on paper would appear in 1848 and one year later, the Seaview United African Baptist Church would be established in Africville. This church served as the focal point for the community, Everything from picnics to funerals and weddings to sports events were held at the church. It was literally the heart of the community.
For much of the 19th century, Africville was a poor but self-sufficient community with about 50 to 80 people. Originally, it was not know as Africville but as The Campbell Road Settlement, owing to the name of the road that came to the community.
The name Africville started to pop up around 1900 as the name of the community. Those around the area thought it was called Africville believing that the people there came from Africa but according to one elderly resident of the community, none came from Africa, all came from northern Halifax, but other residents just called it Africville because its where the black people lived. It is likely white residents of Halifax called the village African Village, which became Africville over time.
The first two generations that lived in the community did not have much. Most of the men found work in low-paying jobs, while some worked as seaman or cleaning train cars. In the community during the early-19th century, only 35 per cent of labourers had regular employment, while 65 per cent worked as domestic servants. Women often worked as cooks, or were hired to clean the hospital or prison.
Many residents ran farms, operated small stores or fished in the Bedford Basin.
In 1883, the first elementary school was built and it was only at the expense of the community who saved the money to create the school because there were no educational opportunities in Africville until then. Due to the poverty in the community, it was not until 1933 that the teachers at the school had any formal training and only 40 per cent of the children received any schooling. Most children had to work, or take care of younger siblings at home, while parents worked.
Only 140 children were ever registered through the school, 60 made it to grade 7 or 8 and only four boys and one girl made it to grade 10.
In 1894, the Africville Seasides hockey team emerged as one one of the teams in the new Colored Hockey League that existed from 1894 to 1930. This league was one of the first to allow goalies to leave their feet to make a save, and it was also where the first slap shot was pioneered. As for the Africville Seasides, they would win the league championship in 1901 and 1902, led by star goaltender William Carvery.
In 1917, Africville would reach its largest population with 400 people. Unfortunately, that was the same year as the Halifax Explosion, the largest unplanned man-made explosion in history. You can hear all about that explosion when I co-hosted on This Is A Disaster Podcast.
At the time of the explosion, the community was made up of buildings that were small and often well-maintained by residents, as well as other homes that were little more than sheds. The elevated land to the south of Africville protected the community from the worst of the explosion that killed 2,000 people in Halifax but Africville still suffered heavy damage and four residents were killed.
One doctor at the time of the explosion went to Africville and noted residents were wandering around in shock amid the destroyed buildings and homes.
As Halifax rebuilt itself after the devastating explosion, Africville only received a small amount of relief funds from the city and none of the reconstruction or modernization the rest of the city received.
A look at the people of Africville comes from people like Elsie Desmond, who was born in Africville in 1911 and had to go to work after she was finished with school as a cleaner.
She said in the excellent book, Traditional Lifetime Stories, the following:
“We walked to work. In winter, snow up to our knees but we would make it. We didn’t make money except when we had special jobs to clean recreation halls. We got four or five dollars then. But usually we got potatoes, turnips, carrots and what was cooked for dinner. We would receive the cooked food in our basket to take home. But that kept us alive and I say people should never forget where they came from. Some people were fortunate but we were not. I worked for what I got.”
Elsie went on in her recollection to talk about the community itself and its strong connection.
“We stuck together on things. We had a group called the Odd Fellows and they had meetings and did community work. If there were any disasters or problems in the families that needed help, the community chipped in and did their part. If someone’s house burnt down, the people would get together and rebuild it.”
In talking about the Halifax Explosion, Elsie states, “We went upstairs in our house because we were getting ready for school. That saved us because downstairs was ruined completely. Flying glass cut me on my neck. My sister was cut in the nose and half her ear got cut off. My mother had just called my second oldest sister to come upstairs when the blast went off. She’d been killed if she hadn’t come upstairs. Africville was almost completely destroyed.”
Halifax, for the most part, chose to ignore Africville, or treat it with contempt. For most of its history, it would not receive proper roads, health services, street lights, electricity or water from the city. Residents protested to the city for proper sanitation and drinking water but were ignored. The water wells were contaminated on such a frequent basis because of the lack of these services that residents usually had to boil water before drinking it or using it for cooking.
The irony is that Halifax collected taxes from Africville, but did not provide services that taxes pay for.
Halifax would look to Africville for one thing, and that was as a place to put the things it did not want. Property values were low and the people had little in the way of political power, which allowed those who ran Halifax to do what they wanted with the community without giving the community anything it needed. Halifax would put its prison there in 1853. A railway extension was put through the middle of the village without consultation in 1854, followed by an infectious disease hospital in 1870. A slaughterhouse and a fecal waste depository was built there as well.
This wasn’t just something that happened in the 19th century either.
In the 1930s, residents petitioned the city for basic needs such as running water, sewage disposal, paved roads, electricity, police and garbage removal. These requests were ignored.
It should be noted that housing in Africville varied immensely. Some people lived in small homes in need of repair, while others had larger houses that would be classified as middle-class. One former resident stated that her house had a family parlour, plaster walls, a piano and dining room table.
Media in the area would undermine the sense of community of Africville. Articles presented the area as a place of just dilapidated houses and no residents. In an opinion piece by Frank Doyle of the Halifax Mail Star in 1963 highlights this. He states, “A few years ago, three children perished when their home was consumed. The city has full power to order these demolished and if owners fail to raze them, it can do so if the buildings are not up to the sleazy minimum standards supposedly demanded of all other property owners everywhere but in Africville. If less attention were paid to the isolated decrepit sheds and unusable garages and more to huts which pose a constant threat to several hundred persons, the city would be safer.”
An article in Time magazine in 1962 did the same, referring to the community as a slum with no redeeming qualities, and talking down to the residents who lived there. The article states, “Such subtleties are academic to the 370 people of Halifax’s Africville, a shantytown caught between the tracks and the dump in the city’s north end. Nearly half of Canada’s negroes live in a score of communities, mostly segregated in Nova Scotia. The crudest, by general agreement, is Africville. Settled more than a century ago by descendants of slaves brought to Nova Scotia by United Empire Loyalists, Africa is built of wood and tin shacks.”
In 1958, the city moved the garbage dump and landfill to Africville. The city looked at several locations but decided that the dump could not be placed in Fairview, a white area of Halifax. One city alderman stated that the dump was a health menace and could not be placed in Fairview. Instead, the dump was placed only 350 metres from the edge of Africville. There appears to be no mention of the impact on health of Africville residents in the council minutes relating to the decision.
Eddie Carvery, who has been protesting the treatment of Africville for decades, said the following about the dump.
“The hospital would just dump their raw garbage on the dump, bloody body parts, blankets and everything. We were subject to that. And then they would burn this dump every so often. There would be walls of fire and toxic smoke and we used to run through that fire to get the metals before they melted because we scavenged off the dump. We had to. You had to do that to survive.
The residents knew they could do nothing to stop the dump from being located where they lived, so they began to go to the dump illegally to salvage goods that they could sell including copper, brass, steel and tin.
Carvery also stated that rats were incredibly common in Africville because of the dump. He said that there were 100,000 at any given time, stating, “It looked like the dump was alive. It looked like a rug.”
Once rats started to migrate to the white area, exterminators came to the dump and covered it in rat poison.
Carvery stated, “We breathed it. It was in the air, it was on our clothes. Now we’re all dying of cancer.”
Today, it is believed the dump was put in Africville to push residents out on their own accord. When this didn’t happen, the city took a different path with Africville.
The dump also allowed the city to classify the area as a slum, which leads us to the next chapter of the history of Africville.
Africville’s school would be closed in 1953 and children had to be bused into city schools but they were only allowed to take the bus until they were 12-years-old. At this point, Africville children were forced to walk to school.
In the book, Halifax, Warden of the North, there are only three mentions of Africville in the entire book, despite the long history of Africville to Halifax. All the mentions paint Africville as a community that ruins this sight of Halifax.
In the book, it is stated, “Willow Park, a beautiful residential site facing Bedford Basin was marred by the grim city prison and the squalid shacks of Africville.”
In 1962, Halifax City Council adopted a resolution to relocate the people of the community. This relocation took place from 1964 to 1967 and the people were transported out, with their possessions, using the dump trucks of the city. For many, it was the perfect metaphor for how they had been treated by the City of Halifax all their lives.
There was no meaningful consultation with Africville residents to get their views on the move. The Halifax Human Rights Advisory Committee was put in charge of consulting with the community but this was not done and it was later reported that 80 per cent of residents had never even had contact with the committee.
Many residents felt that the city was only destroying the community, not to turn it into an industrial site, but to get rid of a concentration of black Canadians.
In the book mentioned before, Halifax, Warden of the North, the relocation is painted as such.
“Of all the areas marked for redevelopment the most obvious was Africville, whose 370 inhabitants were mostly of Negro descent. Theirs was a squalid shack town without piped water or sewer facilities, on the shore of Bedford Basin, where their predecessors had ‘squatted’ more than a century before. Here was a sad problem. The people of Africville wanted to stay where they were and as a Negro community. The Stephenson Report said firmly, “despite the wishes of many of the residents, it would seem desirable on social grounds to offer alternative housing in other locations within the city. The city is a comprehensive urban community and it is not right that any segment of the community should continue to exist in isolation.”
Only 14 residents had clear legal titles to their land, so most residents received $500, or $4,000 today. They were also given an allowance for moving to buy things like furniture.
For young families, it was easy to move but older residents often refused to leave the community they called home for decades.
As soon as residents moved from a house, the city came in and demolished it. The city would even take the opportunity to demolish a house if a resident left for some reason, like going to the hospital. Often residents only had a few hours notice to leave before the bulldozers came through.
The church, which had been around for over a century, was demolished on Nov. 20, 1967 in the middle of the night. This was done before the city actually owned the building. The documentation for the church sale stated it was bought in 1968, but the page was edited to forge the sale and state that the city bought it in 1967. The church was bulldozed with many vital records inside, which would have helped prove many land claims.
The last home to be demolished would happen on Jan. 2, 1970.
Elsie Desmond would relate in her retelling the following, “Bulldozers destroyed the houses and garbage trucks carried our belongings. I didn’t like it and hated to see my home gone.”
Those who were given money found that it did not go very far when paying for rent or a downpayment on a house. Work was still hard to come by and those Africville residents who stayed in Halifax soon found themselves on welfare due to the rising cost of living in the city. Other former residents moved to places like Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg.
While Halifax would hail the demolition, the truth was that it was far from something kind done to other humans.
The history of Africville was deep and some came from the community to make names for themselves in the world. George Dixon, regarded as the greatest featherweight boxer in history, was born in the 19th century in Africville and today is celebrated as one of the greatest athletes to come from Nova Scotia. Reverend Addie Aylestock was born in the community in 1909 and would go on to become the first woman minister to be ordained by the British Methodist Episcopal Church, and the first black woman to be ordained in Canada.
Portia White, a highly regarded singer, was born in the community in 1911.
In addition, many notable people came to the community from time to time. In the 1960s, legendary boxer Joe Louis was in Halifax and asked where the black people lived. He was told Africville and went and visited the community himself.
Duke Ellington also came to the community to visit where his father-in-law had lived. Ellington stayed with some family in the community during his visit.
Africville may have ceased to exist in 1970, but it was not forgotten. In the 1980s, the Seaview Memorial Park was created to preserve the area from development. Protests were held in the park through the 1980s and 1990s by former Africville residents. In 1983, the Africville Genealogy Society was formed to track residents and their descendants.
In 2005, the Africville Act was introduced by the Nova Scotia NDP, calling for a formal apology regarding Africville.
Peter Kelly, former mayor of Halifax, also offered land, money and services to build a replica of the church that was destroyed. In 2002, the site of Africville was made a National Historic Site of Canada.
In 2010, Halifax Council ratified a proposed Africville apology and created the Africville Heritage Trust with the federal government to design a museum and build a replica of the church.
On Feb. 24, 2010, Halifax Mayor Kelly made the Africville Apology, and also provided $4.5 million in compensation.
Today, a museum exists in the replica church. The replica church opened on Sept. 25, 2011. In February 2020, the provincial government announced that the bell that had once hung in the church, which had survived the demolition and sat in storage for 50 years, would be returned to the area once again.
There is also an exhibit on Africville at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, which Matthew McRae helped to set up.
Its history may be gone, but it lives on in the people who called it home and their descendants. As former Africville resident Irvine Carvery says, “You weren’t isolated at any time living in Africville. You always felt at home. The doors were always open. That is one of the most important things that has stayed with me throughout my life.” Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, Canadian Encyclopedia, VICE, the women of Africville, Halifax Warden of the North