Africville was a close‐knit Black community in the north end of Halifax for over 120 years. The City demolished Africville in the 1960s, and its residents have been fighting for justice ever since.
If you've never heard of Africville, you’re not alone. The story of the destruction 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 settlement in Nova Scotia
Black people have lived in Nova Scotia since well before the city of Halifax was founded on Miꞌkmaq territory in 1749. There are records of Black people in Nova Scotia dating to the early 1600s. And many colonial settlements, including Louisbourg, brought enslaved Black people to the east coast indirectly via the Transatlantic slave trade.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s – after the American Revolution and the War of 1812 – large groups of Black settlers began to arrive in the province. Many of them were formerly 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.
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.
The destruction of Africville
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 to justify its decision, claiming that relocation would improve the standard of living for residents.
In January 1964, Halifax City Council voted to authorize the relocation of Africville residents. There was no meaningful consultation with residents of Africville to gather their views. Fewer than 20 per cent of residents had any contact with the Halifax Human Rights Advisory Committee, 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 – many 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.
The City demolished homes as soon as they were vacated. Infamously, officials bulldozed Seaview United Baptist Church – considered by many the heart of the community – in the middle of the night of November 20, 1967.
In the end, despite resistance, all residents were relocated; the last remaining Africville home was destroyed in January of 1970.
Sunday Miller, the former Executive Director of the Africville Heritage and Trust, describes the relocation as very hard on many residents. She recalls a City worker who moved 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 social supports intended to assist former residents only three years after relocation began. Many residents found it difficult to adjust to their new lives.
Miller says: "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 Africville 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.”
The legacy of Africville
Despite these challenges, former residents took action and sought justice. In 1969, residents created the Africville Action Committee to support and advocate for displaced residents. In the 1980s, the Africville Genealogy Society was formed and began to seek compensation for the suffering caused by the destruction of the community.
In 2010, a settlement was finally reached. The Mayor of Halifax made a public apology for the razing of Africville. Part of the compensation payment was used to build a replica of Seaview Church, which now serves as the Africville Museum. Not all former residents accepted the apology, however, and some are continuing to seek individual compensation for what they suffered.
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 in Halifax, 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.”
The story of Africville is a stark reminder that the language of human rights can sometimes be misused to support rights violations. It shows that whole communities as well as individuals can suffer the consequences of racism. And it teaches that we must always ensure that all the voices in our community are heard – especially those that are too often silenced by marginalization and discrimination.