The story of Africville

By Matthew McRae, Communications Advisor

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Two children looking at the camera and smiling

Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, Bob Brooks

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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 settlement in Nova Scotia

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.

A close-knit community

A woman stands behind a wooden store counter. Two young children are standing in front of her. One faces the woman behind the counter while the other looks away.

Matilda Newman’s store in Africville, 1964. Local businesses were demolished during the relocation.

Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Ted Grant, e002283006

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 150 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. 

Matilda Newman’s store in Africville, 1964. Local businesses were demolished during the relocation.

Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Ted Grant, e002283006

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.

Irvine Carvery, former Africville resident

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.

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A black and white image of about 15 houses on a hill. In the foreground is a well with a sign beside it which reads: “Please boil this water before drinking and cooking.

Africville residents did not receive water and sewer services provided to other Halifax residents. For their water supply, they relied upon an assortment of wells.

Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, Bob Brooks
A black and white image of women and young children sitting on couches and chairs in a small living room.

A family in their living room in Africville, around 1965. Despite the challenges Africville faced, there was an extremely strong sense of community spirit. This community spirit still exists today among former residents and their descendants.

Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, Bob Brooks

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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 1964, 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.

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A black and white image of two men in suits standing in front of a wooden house with their backs to the viewer.

Two Halifax City officials standing outside an Africville house prior to the demolition of the community. Officials and experts used the language of human rights to argue for the destruction of the community, despite the fact that many residents had stated their opposition to the plan.

Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, Bob Brooks
A black and white image of about a dozen houses on a hill. In the middle of the image, a dirt road travels up the hill between the houses.

A view of some houses in Africville.

Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, Bob Brooks

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The destruction of Africville

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.

A man stands on the back of a garbage truck that is parked in front of a wooden house with green shingling. In the background rail lines and more houses can be seen, and behind that, Halifax harbor.

Africville resident Dorothy Carvery is moved from her home by a City of Halifax garbage truck.

Photo: Library and Archives Canada, Ted Grant, e002283990

I spoke to Sunday Miller, the former 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.”

Living in Africville, we had our own home. It might not have been a mansion, but it was a home.

Laura Howe, former Africville resident

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.”

The legacy of Africville

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 - will open in a new tab for the razing of Africville. Part of the settlement was used to rebuild Seaview Church, which now serves as the Africville Museum - will open in a new tab. Not all former residents accepted the apology, however, and some are continuing to seek individual compensation for what they suffered.

An image of a wooden church building with a single steeple. Above the main doors is a sign that reads “Seaview United Baptist Church.”

This replica of Africville’s Seaview United Baptist Church (formerly the Seaview United African Baptist Church) was opened in 2012 and is now the home of the Africville Museum.

Photo: Courtesy of the Africville Museum.

Since the relocation… Africville has become central in the new Black consciousness in Nova Scotia. It has become something to appreciate and identify with. Africville has become a symbol of why Black organization and solidarity are necessary to fight racism.

Donald Clairmont, former professor of Sociology at Dalhousie University

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.”

A large room that is filled with glass display cases, text panels in English and French, and large pictures. There are also many tracks of lighting on the ceiling.

The inside of the Africville Heritage Museum, which is located inside the rebuilt Seaview United Baptist Church in Halifax.

Photo: Courtesy of the Africville Museum.

It is important for Canadians to learn the story of Africville. It stands as a stark reminder that the language of human rights can sometimes be misused to support rights violations. It shows the consequences of racism and discrimination. Last but not least, the story of Africville teaches that we must always ensure that all the voices in our community are heard – only then can all Canadians move forward together.

This story was written in part using research conducted by Mallory Richard, who worked at the Museum as both a researcher and a project coordinator.