Imagine for a moment that you were a young person living in Africville with your parents. You were given a small piece of land by your father or your grandparents. You built your home on that piece of land. You paid cash for everything. It took you two years or more of hard work and you put every penny and every free moment into building this home. After two years, you had a home, a piece of land, mortgage free. It gave you an opportunity to bring up your own family and have a good start. You had financial security. My generation has been deprived of this opportunity. We will struggle for everything we get, because someone decided that the land of Africville would serve the city better as industrial land. As our society is further inundated with cell phone videos showing white folks going on racist diatribes, and Black bodies being ravaged by guardians of the carceral state, it has become far too easy for many people to abridge the totality of racism down to unkind words and physical brutality.
This is problematic because it ignores and under-appreciates the insidious scourge of systemic racism. Those who constrict racism to “nigger” and iPhone videos of death will often miss the nuanced dehumanization of voter suppression, mass incarceration, employment bias and housing discrimination, especially the type that robs Black folks of their homes, their land and their wealth. While the United States has many communities such as Oakland and Baltimore where these detrimental practices destroyed our community’s wealth, very few people realize that this form of systemic injustice isn’t just American tradition, it’s also Canadian history, and it occurred, not too long ago, in a place once called Africville. To understand the importance of the Africville community, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one must understand its historical significance.
Every July 4th, Americans gather together to celebrate Independence Day, an ode to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence that solidified The United States removal from British colonial rule. One aspect of the story that is rarely discussed is how escaped Black slaves fought as soldiers for the British under the “freedom and a farm” promise, declaring that they would get to be free and have their own land if the British beat back the rebel forces. The British then entered the names of these Black Loyalists into a large registry – the book of negroes – which would allow these men, women and children to obtain certificates of freedom. Once the war was over, the enslaved Blacks were taken, in bondage, to the West Indies, while those named in the book of negroes – 1336 men, 914 women and 750 children – were put on Navy ships and British chartered private transports headed for Nova Scotia.
The battered and defiled bodies of these resilient souls landed in Nova Scotia between April and November of 1783, where they created settlements in Shelburne, Digby, Chedabucto, Halifax and along the Bedford Basin on Campbell Road (which would eventually become known as Africville.) They arrived in a country much like the one they were unceremoniously evacuated from, rife with racism and slavery. Three decades later they were joined by around 2,000 Black Refugees, African slaves who escaped slavery in the War of 1812. Despite monumental challenges and obstructionism, they built shacks into houses and turned a makeshift lot into an actual community. While the local and provincial government refused to support or even legitimize their existence in a truly quantifiable manner, they literally bootstrapped their way out of oblivion into autonomous hardship. As Black folks have for generations, they adopted the tenuous joy of survival.
“Maybe [the living conditions] weren’t up to standard to the people who set the standards, but to us, that was home no matter what the houses looked like,” said Terry Dixon. Although they avoided the surety of enslavement, the British neglected to follow through on their promise to provide them with land, food and utilities necessary to effectively begin the process of curating successful independence. Although they began paying taxes to the City of Halifax, the city didn’t provide the community with the recompense that taxes should necessitate. Africville was deprived of paved roads, running water, garbage pickup, streetlights, public transportation, snow plowing, and sewers, amongst other services granted to mostly white Nova Scotians. Much like citizens in Flint today, their water was so heavily contaminated that they had to boil it thoroughly before use.
Unfortunately, their collective community wealth was not such that they could easily provide these things for themselves (a la the Black Wall Street in Tulsa). While some residents operated fishing businesses and some run farms, 65% of Africville residents worked as low-paid domestic servants, and only 35% of the labourers had steady wealth. But, just like Black folks who’ve battled discrimination at various times in various countries around the globe, one of the biggest battles against racism is resisting state-sponsored plunder. Whether it’s the government, or some quasi-powerful white-interest group, sometimes Black folks things are just taken. Although Africville residents were granted the land that they settled on, and they even signed the first land purchase agreement in 1848, the city decided that their records weren’t official enough, ushering in an era of nebulous, unrepentant bias.
While gentrification today is done by financially preying on the less advantaged, what happened to Africville was far more odious, direct and brutal. In the 1850’s, not only were some Africville residents relocated due to the construction of a railway but also the Rockhead prison was built right beside their community. In 1858, Africville became home to the city’s fecal waste depository and, more than a decade later, became home to an infectious disease hospital. Eddie Carvery, a former resident, said “The hospital would just dump their raw garbage on the dump—bloody body parts, blankets, and everything.” Eventually an open city dump was placed in Africville and Carvery believes that assisted in the rat explosion in the community. Although the area wasn’t incredibly large, Carvery believes that the rat population was around 100,000 at any given time. Once the rats reached the white communities, they came down and recklessly doused the dump in rat poison – leaving it for the citizens to breath in and ingest.
After the 1917 Halifax explosion, which occurred when a French cargo ship laden with explosives collided with a Norwegian vessel, killing 2,000 people and destroying large swaths of the city, including many of the small frail homes in Africville, the already devastated community received little of the donated relief funds that was given to rebuild the city. That tragedy also gave Halifax their opportunity to steal the land and use it for what they really wanted: industrial redevelopment.
“There were other communities, and not just Black communities, that had also the same type of living conditions, if not worse. But we were close to the city and we were predominantly Black so our living conditions were used as a reason to move us,” adds Dixon. In 1947, Africville was officially designated as industrial land and the Halifax city council, without consulting the actual residents of the community, began discussing the industrial potential the land held. By 1954, the city manager recommended shifting Africville residents to city-owned property so they could undergo the North Shore Development Plan.
It was not just a proposition to steal their land, but more importantly, a plan to steal their ownership to turn them from land-owners into property-renters. Because of the nature of how land was given and passed down, only a handful of families had actual legal title, and some were offered only $500 to leave the land they owned to begin renting from the city. Residents who refused to take the money found their homes being bulldozed while they were still inside them, and the church, which had been a symbol of Black survival and the center of their communal universe for over a decade, was bulldozed in the middle of the night without warning. The last building was demolished by 1970.
And just like that, it was gone. The place that former slaves built. The community that was once visited by Joe Louis and Duke Ellington. The home of Black residents who, against every odd, built a life for themselves despite the racist intentions of different governments and fellow white citizens. Forty years after the last home was destroyed, the city of Halifax decided it was time to say “sorry” and they issued an official apology. But, as with most Black suffering, the recognition was too little and too late. Today, the children and grandchildren of Africville residents are less likely to be homeowners than other Halifax natives of their generation.
In fact, in 2004, the UN declared that Africville residents deserved reparations for what they endured. So, hopefully, the next time Black Americans find themselves flooded under a deluge of videos detailing racist rants and police brutality, they’ll resist the urge to post any “meanwhile in Canada” memes propagating the ‘Great White North’ as a land free from systemic racism. Just because our persecution isn’t televised, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. When Lincoln Anthony Blades is not writing for his controversial and critically acclaimed blog ThisIsYourConscience.com, he can be found contributing articles for many different publications on topics such as race, politics, social reform and relationships. Lincoln is an author who wrote the hilariously insightful book “You’re Not A Victim, You’re A Volunteer.” He is also the host of the upcoming news show, “All Things Being Equal.”