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.
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.
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.