Africville: A Broad Overview
The community of Africville is an important and telling example in Canadian history of the lives of Black refugees upon their arrivals in Canada, a country which had only recently abolished slavery. Africville exists along Bedford Basin in Halifax, settled by Black refugees around 1812. These refugees arrived in Nova Scotia on the promise of land and equal rights by British government. This was a common promise made by the British to Black people in exchange for joining wartime initiatives, particularly for those seeking to escape slavery states. In Africville, rather than land grants in exchange for services to the British army, residents were given licenses of occupation. This meant that the land did not legally belong to and could not be sold by its inhabitants.
Like most Black settlements in Canada, the land plots given to the refugees were too small and infertile to farm sustainably. Typically these communities were placed along the outskirts of town and were viewed only as valuable as the work they could produce for the neighboring White communities. Africville was no exception to this, with the plots of land located around the outskirts of Halifax. This was far enough away to keep the Black community socially segregated from Whites, while also close enough for Africville people to commute to work in Halifax. As a result, Africville became isolated and economically dependent on Halifax, leading to poverty throughout the community. At this time, Halifax was modernizing to include services such as sewers, streetlamps, a water system, police patrol and fire hydrants. Africville received none of these services and in fact were subject to several initiatives which negatively impacted the community’s ability to thrive. A rail line was built cutting through Africville, a prison established, a night soil disposal pit built along with a fertilizer plant, 2 slaughter houses, a city dump and several other industrial facilities. These builds lead to some (entry-level, general labor) employment opportunities, but the results were largely noise, soot, pollution and forced relocation of residents.
It is important to note, that while the community members of Africville were experiencing extreme racial discrimination, their community still thrived in many ways. In particular, a huge asset to the inhabitants of Africville was the establishment of their Baptist church. This provided a sense of community, a physical place to educate the community, and promoted Africville identity. Historically, churches in Black communities (usually Methodist or Baptist) have been used for these purposes, as under the Black Codes, Black people were legally barred from gathering in groups of more than 5, unless it was in church. As a result, Black churches existed as spaces of resistance against racism, as well as essential spaces to promote Black pride, community involvement, and support. These spaces are integral to the survival of marginalized groups in the face of oppression. It is quite clear that Africville’s church brought the community together, helping to ensure their survival.
In the 50s, it was announced that Halifax would start a major renewal program, relocating thousands of Africville residents. At this time the political atmosphere was largely pro-integration in Canada. This can be seen through the relocation of Africville children to schools in Halifax. As a result, rather than fighting relocation itself, Africville fought for more favorable conditions upon relocation. Unfortunately these conditions were never realized, and Africville’s people were scattered through Halifax with minimal government assistance and major unemployment issues. In response, the Africville Genealogical Society was created in 1983 in order to carry on the “Spirit of Africville” for the community and its descendants. They are currently working with the Canadian Government to return Africville’s people to its land, developing it as a history memorial, as well as a functioning source of sustainable revenue and community.
The example of Africville is an excellent allegory for the Black experience of early Canadian life. It is simple to see how racism in a country which had abolished slavery still implicates Black communities to this day. Africville’s pre-relocation history exists as a result of racist policy which disadvantaged Africville specifically in order to economically benefit the White population in Halifax. It is the problematic history here which warranted, in the eyes of the Canadian government, a complete relocation and separation of the community as a solution to the ‘issue’ of Africville. This history is not one unique to Nova Scotia, this is an example of a common experience faced by many Black communities in early Canada.