Thursday, April 14, 2011

Africville, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Africville, Nova Scotia, Canada

Africville was established by Black Refugees of the War of 1812. These veterans had accepted an offer of freedom issued by Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane for their support of British interests during this conflict. However, upon arrival in Nova Scotia, little was done to find land for them. Some lived in Preston or Hammonds Plains but found these sites too far removed from potential jobs in Halifax. Just to have shelter in order to survive the weather, they were forced to squat, or take ownership without title, beside the Bedford Basin outside Halifax, over time creating the Africville settlement.

With access to menial work in the Halifax area, some of the homes became much more than the shacks that had been erected hastily in the early days. Eventually, a church was built and people paid taxes. Despite this, a slaughterhouse was built nearby, and a train track and the city dump were located within Africville. The community was cleared in the 1960s, upsetting many residents; the decision to tear it down was made without them and many stood to lose the investment of their home and way of life. Africville was named a national historic site by the Canadian government as part of a process of recognizing its importance to the African-Canadian community and to Black history.

The history of Africville

The town was officially founded in the 1840s, but many of the families who lived there can trace their roots in Africville as far back as the 1700s. Its people were among the first settlers in Nova Scotia, which once was a "slave society." However, the rocky terrain of Nova Scotia limited agricultural potential and prevented slavery from developing on a large scale.

Many American slaves migrated to Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, freed by the British to encourage them to leave their revolutionary masters. They were promised equality, but ended up selling themselves into slavery in order to survive.

In 1792, an agent of the Sierra Leone Company persuaded nearly 2,000 of the Halifax settlers to migrate to Africa. Then, in 1796, more than 550 Maroons, a group of African descent slaves deported from Jamaica, settled on the lands vacated by the black settlers. In 1800, they were shipped off to Sierra Leone where they helped to suppress a rebellion by the former American slaves.

Augustin Brunias (c.1730-1796) 'Pacification with the maroon negroes in the island of Jamaica'

Following the War of 1812, as many as 3,000 blacks streamed into the province and settled within a short distance of Halifax. The British had promised they would be given basic necessities to help them settle into a life of freedom. But the British did not follow through on their promise, and left the refugees to fend for themselves, without food, clothing or shelter.

The original Africville settlers were made up of the many blacks who had come to Nova Scotia over several centuries. These settlers moved to Africville in order to escape the economic hardships encountered on the rocky and barren land of their original settlements.

The first land purchase in Africville is believed to have been in 1848.According to Parks Canada, the population of Africville never exceeded 400 people, who came from up to 80 different families. It was a tight-knit community of law-abiding, tax paying, Baptist citizens who did their best to survive in the conditions they faced. By 1849, the newly formed community had established a Baptist church.

In the 1850s, some Africville residents were relocated due to railway construction. The city began building industrial sites all around and through Africville after Halifax residents rejected the unappealing structures. Africville became the home to Rockhead Prison (1853), the city's night soil disposal pits (1858), an infectious disease hospital (during the 1870s), a trachoma hospital (1905), an open city dump and incinerator (in the early 1950s) and a slaughterhouse.

The Halifax city council, according to its minutes, regarded the "area around Africville as a location for city facilities not tolerated in other neighbourhoods." In addition to the smelly, dirty industries that were relocated to Africville, the city failed to install water service, sewage or lights. Africville also lacked recreational facilities although the Halifax Recreation and Playgrounds Commission did provide facilities to other areas of the city. The residents had no fire or police protection, which led to illegal liquor and entertainment enterprises developing in the small town. By the mid-1940s, Africville was seen as a real problem for the city of Halifax.

In 1947, Halifax city council designated Africville as industrial land. However, the residents of Africville expressed a desire to stay and develop the area residentially. City council authorized the borrowing of funds to provide water and sewerage services, but the services were never installed. In the 1950s, discussions in the Halifax city council concerning the industrial potential of the Africville site increased. The city of Halifax owned sizable property to the south, east and west; railway tracks surrounded and intersected the community and the shoreline was valuable for harbour development.

In mid-1954, the city manager submitted to Halifax city council a report that recommended the shifting of Africville residents to city-owned property southwest of the existing community. The report stated: "The area is not suited for residences, but, properly developed, is ideal for industrial purposes. There is water frontage for piers, the railway for sidings, a road to be developed leading directly downtown and in the other direction to the provincial highway."

The city of Halifax claimed that the relocation was for humanitarian reasons as a part of a large urban renewal plan the city had proposed, including the improvement of living conditions, and the racial integration of Africville residents. They proposed welfare planning, co-ordinating employment, educational and rehabilitative programs with the re-housing of residents.

The city council set up an alliance of black and white "caretakers" to be the voice of Africville residents in relocation exchange decisions. The "caretakers" were members of the Halifax Human Rights Advisory, consisting of 10 members, four whites and six blacks. The white caretakers were university graduates or tradesmen with little or no knowledge of Africville's social structure and minimal contact with Africville and its residents. The black caretakers were all middle-class and were concerned about white discrimination against Nova Scotian blacks. Only one of them was from Nova Scotia and all had only little knowledge of Africville's history and social structure.

Africville residents were not consulted in the formation of initial relocation terms, and no attention was given to recommendations from the community. Consequently, the final terms favoured the city.

In the end, many citizens were shipped off to slum housing, their personal belongings transported in city garbage trucks. Bulldozers were sent in during the night to level the community; not only the houses, but the stores, businesses and even the church. One resident recalls,"Those who refused or were slow to leave often found themselves scrambling out of the back door with their belongings as the bulldozers were coming in the front."

Property claims were in chaos: only a handful of families could establish legal title, others claimed squatter rights, and others rented. They were given less than $500 compensation. Most of the residents were relocated to public housing in Mulgrave Park in Halifax. The total cost of the expropriation was $800,000. In 1968, the Africville relocation was proclaimed a success, and the last building was bulldozed in 1970.

The site where Africville was located is now a deserted park. All that remains of the community is a monument in the shape of a sundial inscribed with the names of early black settlers.

Remember Africville

This short film depicts Africville, a small black settlement that lay within the city limits of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In the 1960s, the families there were uprooted and their homes demolished in the name of urban renewal and integration. More than 20 years later, the site of the community of Africville is a stark, under-utilized park. Former residents, their descendants and some of the decision-makers speak out and, with the help of archival photographs and films, tell the story of that painful relocation.


  1. I currently live about 100 yards from where Africville was... The newly re-built Baptist Church (a museum) was recenly opened as I write this March 2012. Although not a suitable tribute at ALL, Africville Park (renamed from Seaview, although some Seaview signs still remain...) is a beautiful and peaceful area of my neighbourhood.

    1. Thanks for your comments, it's feels good to have a Canadian reader.

      This post was meant to dispel some of old historic myths. You see, we in the USA tell each other and teach in our schools the myth of “freedom up north.”

      The myth goes something like this: “Harriet Tubman led her people out of southern bondage to the land of freedom up north in Canada.” The black history month matriarch, Harriet Tubman, becomes a legendary iconic hero to express the dichotomy between freedom and slavery, north and south, underground railroad and sold down the river . We tell each other this fairytale like we tell each other about Santa Claus, the Tooth-fairy, and leprechauns riding on purple unicorns flying on rainbow-colored moonbeams.

      Much like the proverbial stork doesn't deliver babies, history certainly is more akin to real life childbirth—messy, bloody, and painful. Racial oppression doesn't have a geographical line marked by the Mason and Dixon or the Canadian Maple Leaf. We need to drop our childish obsession with simple sound-bite history-lite.

      There are several posts on the Canadian Loyalists (of the American Revolution as well as the ones from the War of 1812), as well as the Jamaican Maroons who were exiled (deported) to Nova Scotia, and the expatriated Afro-Canadians who were sent to Sierra Leone.

      Most of my information on Afro-Canadians comes directly from the source. Unfortunately, finding information on Afro-Canadian history hasn't been easy. The British (or United Kingdom) and the United States seem to dedicate more man-hours and scholarship to the study of slavery, emancipation, imperialism and civil rights. Canada appears to be quite mute on the enslavement, subjugation and segregation of Afro-Canadians as well as the Native American population.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

    2. I plan to visit Halifax in September. I started doing research to find information on Halifaz and came across a article about Africville. I am so glad that your post was available. My heart goes out to the people who was treated so poorly. As a African American female who will be going to Canada for the first time, I intend to visit the place once called Africville.

    3. This has happened to tons of cultures in Halifax. My ancestors were treated as badly as black people and you dont see us moaning and crying that the metro center used to be our homes and we were kicked out. Get over it. They were given a new community, with new houses and new property of their own. and yet they still as for MORE AND MORE. Restitution money?! the land back? Jesus, restitution for what? being moved to Preston and being given a house with a deed in your name? Seriously. SHUT UP ALREADY ABOUT AFRICVILLE.

    4. Honestly, you don't want ANYBODY to actually "Shut up already about Africville," as you boisterously assert. No, your actions are speaking more loudly than your words. In that there are literally BILLIONS upon BILLIONS of websites on the internet that you can CHOOSE to visit, and certainly there are literally TRILLIONS of topics that span the known universe...and yet, you not only CHOSE to find a small obscure blog that discusses New World slavery and its aftermath, but then you decided to post a comment, too. Coincidence? I think not. You had to actively SEEK this topic and this website. This post is over 2 years old and it was a REPOST from 2002 (that would be 11 years ago) ... and you're boiling mad about 200 year-old land grants ....Really?

      Now, if you were a member of the aboriginal or indigenous people of Nova Scotia, then perhaps you have a grievance with the giver (the British Monarchy) ... In other words, if you don't belong to Union of Nova Scotia Indians: Representing the Acadia, Chapel Island, Eskasoni, Membertou, Shubenacadie, Wagmatcook, and Waycobah Mikmaqs of Nova Scotia or the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq: Representing the Afton, Annapolis Valley, Bear River, Glooscap, Millbrook and Pictou Landing Mikmaqs of Nova Scotia, then this 10 generational contract dispute really has NOTHING to do with you.

      Your grievance is with the Crown of England (King George III and King George IV) who PROMPTED the American slaves to fight during the Revolutionary War (1776) and The War of 1812 for FREEDOM, LAND, LIBERTY and CITIZENSHIP. The Monarchy of Great Britain reneged on their promise, not the Black Loyalist. Simply put there was a contract between the former slaves and the Crown of Great Britain that neither the British nor the Canadian government. Your anger is misplaced.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

  2. For those coming to Halifax, a visit to the Black Cultural Center at 1149 Main Street in Cherrybrook (out the backside of Dartmouth) is a must. The black history of Nova Scotia by the black people who lived it. A real telling, not sanitized or watered down... very informative.


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