Black History Month: The Story of Africville
If you’ve never heard of Africville, you’re not alone; the tragic story of this small Black community in Nova Scotia is not as well known as it should be. It is part of a much larger story of Black settlers in Nova Scotia, which goes back hundreds of years.
Black people have lived in Nova Scotia since before the founding of Halifax in 1749. However, it was only after the American Revolution, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, that large groups of Black settlers began to arrive in the province. Many of them were former enslaved people who had been promised freedom and land in Nova Scotia, but when they arrived, they encountered white settlers who viewed them as inferior.
Because of racism, Black settlers were pushed to the margins of society and forced to live on the most inhospitable land. Despite this, they persevered, developing strong, vibrant communities. Africville was one such place.
Africville was a primarily Black community located on the south shore of the Bedford Basin, on the outskirts of Halifax. The first records of a Black presence in Africville date back to 1848, and it continued to exist for 120 years after that. Over that time, hundreds of individuals and families lived there and built a thriving, close-knit community. There were stores, a school, a post office and the Seaview United Baptist Church, which was Africville’s spiritual and social centre.
Unfortunately, discrimination and poverty presented many challenges for the community of people in Africville. The City of Halifax refused to provide many amenities other Haligonians took for granted, such as sewage, access to clean water and garbage disposal. Africville residents, who paid taxes and took pride in their homes, asked the City to provide these basic services on numerous occasions, but no action was taken. The City compounded the problem by building many undesirable developments in and around Africville, including an infectious disease hospital, a prison and a dump.
Instead of providing proper municipal services to the community, the City of Halifax eventually decided to relocate the residents of Africville. The City said it wanted to build industry and infrastructure in the area. But it also used the language of human rights, claiming that relocation would improve the standard of living for residents. In January of 1964, the Halifax City Council voted to authorize the relocation of Africville residents. Before this decision was made, there was no meaningful consultation with residents of Africville to gather their views. In fact, it was later reported over 80 per cent of residents had never had contact with the Halifax Human Rights Advisory Committee, which was the group charged with consulting the community.
The destruction of Africville took several years. Residents who could prove they owned their land were offered payment equal to the value of their houses. Residents without proof – some residents did not have deeds, even if their families had lived on the site for generations – were offered $500. Those who resisted relocation could have their lands expropriated by the city. There were also some accounts of bribery and intimidation being used against residents to force them from the neighbourhood. In the end, despite resistance, all residents were relocated; the last remaining Africville home was destroyed in January of 1970.
I spoke to Sunday Miller, the Executive Director of the Africville Heritage and Trust, about how hard the relocation was for many residents. She told me about a City worker who had helped move an old woman out of her home in a garbage truck. The worker said: “I remember this woman because she was between me and the driver and she cried all the way into the city because she didn’t want to leave, didn’t know why they were making her leave. What really bothered me – she didn’t even know where she was going. They could have taken her anywhere.”
To make matters worse, the City of Halifax dismantled the support structures intended to assist former residents only three years after relocation began. Many residents found it difficult to adjust to their new lives. Miller explained it very well:
“When people of Africville were here, they were self-sufficient. They might not have had a lot of money but they weren’t on government assistance. They were trying to create a community that the government wasn’t willing for them to have. When they took them off this land and forced them to be a ward of the government, which is what happened for those who went into social housing, you took their dignity from them.”
Former Black residents also faced racism in their new homes. In one case, a white neighbour is reported to have begun a petition opposed to accepting a Black family. In another, a man moving from Africville to the neighbourhood of Hammond Plains received a letter threatening to burn his house down if he and his family did not leave. It was signed “from the white people of Hammond Plains.”
Despite these challenges, former residents did take action and seek justice. In the 1980s, the Africville Genealogy Society was formed and it began to seek recompense for all the suffering caused by the destruction of the community. In 2010, a settlement was reached and the Mayor of Halifax made a public apology for the razing of Africville. Part of the settlement was used to rebuild Seaview Church, which now serves as the Africville Museum.
Lindell Smith is Halifax City Councillor for District 8, which includes the site of the former community of Africville. As only the second Black city councillor ever elected, he is happy the City has apologized and feels that it is very important that Haligonians, and all Canadians, know what happened in Africville.
“The only reason that Africville is not here today is because of what the City did to the community. A lot of Canadians don’t know the history around that; some people know it was a Black community, but don’t know why it’s no longer there. I think it’s important to remember the terrible things that happened, the discrimination and displacement. But also the people of Africville had ownership and a sense of community, and that is something to celebrate.”
Today, Sunday Miller runs both the Africville Heritage Trust and the Museum, and in that role she works hard to share the story of Africville with all Canadians – both the story of the tragedy, but also the story of a strong and vibrant community. Miller told me she had never planned to take this job, but friends, neighbours and even strangers kept stopping her and telling her she should consider applying. Miller decided that God was trying to tell her something, and so after praying and talking to friends, she decided to apply. She’s glad she did – and all Canadians are richer for her decision. It is important for Canadians to know the story of Africville. As Canadians, we must always face the truth of our past, and we must always remember how important it is to listen to all the voices in our community.
This blog was written in part using research conducted by Mallory Richard, who worked at the Museum as both a researcher and a project coordinator.