February is Black History month. It’s a good thing. It will be an even better thing when we no longer need it. William Pearly Oliver understood that.
Oliver was descended from Virginia slaves. They were brought to Nova Scotia after the War of 1812 when slavery was still legal in the British colony. He was born in Wolfville in 1912. His father was Acadia University’s Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. As the only Black kid in town, he befriended those who offered friendship and fought those who called him n—er. Racism was often subtle – he would not be invited to some people’s homes and was barred from some parties. It was sometimes blatant. For example, he was captain of his high school hockey team but one afternoon a visiting team refused to play if he suited up.
As an Acadia student, he made the track team but found he was unable to stay with his teammates in segregated hotels or eat with them in segregated restaurants. He turned his anger and shame to his studies and in 1934 earned his Bachelor of Arts and, a year later, his Bachelor of Divinity degree. Despite Blacks having lived in Nova Scotia for over 200 years, Oliver was only the third to graduate from university.
Oliver met and married Pearleen. She had wanted to become a nurse but Blacks were not allowed to enter the program in Nova Scotia. That painful denial led to her becoming an influential speaker and writer, crusading for racial equality. They raised five sons.
In 1937, Oliver began a 25-year ministry at Halifax’s Cornwallis Street Church; the only Black church completely owned and operated by its congregation. Halifax was a segregated city. Wolfville had taught Oliver that racism exists. Halifax taught him its fury.
His Bachelor of Divinity thesis argued that Canada’s economic structure was not meeting its people’s needs. Jesus, he wrote, demanded a just distribution of wealth and opportunity. Halifax proved the wisdom of his belief that without self-pride, economic opportunity, and property ownership, there could be no social advancement or racial justice.
In 1942 he became the Canadian army’s only African Canadian chaplain. Only allowed to speak with African Canadian troops, he offered hope to young men moving through Halifax to the overseas war. After the war, Oliver became the founding chair of the African United Baptist Association’s Urban and Rural Life Committee. The committee helped those in the Black community to become more self-sufficient and to see the need to look beyond spiritual matters to improve their material stability. He was also one of the founding members of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People that helped organize self-improvement efforts and offer legal assistance for those fighting in a system stacked against them. In 1947, Oliver was instrumental in organizing support for Viola Desmond who fought segregation by refusing to leave her seat in Halifax’s Roseland Theatre – 8 years before Rosa Parks showed similar courage on a Montgomery Bus.
The Nova Scotia education ministry appointed him as its regional representative in charge of promoting adult education in the Black community. Through the church, Oliver fundraised an impressive $45,000 to build an education and community centre that opened in 1957. It offered young people a place to gather on evenings and weekends to avoid the temptations of drugs, crime, and alcohol and the encouragement to stay in school.
His efforts led to his message being heard beyond Halifax. As president of the Maritime United Baptist Convention he spoke at communities throughout Halifax, Ontario, Quebec, and the New England states. He preached his message that education, jobs, property, and a feeling of self-worth were essential to allowing African Canadians and Americans to break the chains of racism and discrimination.
In 1962 he left the Cornwallis Street Church to work full time as an adult educator and community organizer. He articulated six goals for the Black community: improved health; better homes; better farms; improved schools; more jobs; and better use of municipal and provincial agencies. Only in pursuing all six, he argued, could Jim Crow be attacked and racial and social justice be advanced. He said that changing laws is important but, “You don’t give a man dignity through legislation. The second emancipation must be in terms of black-realization.”
Oliver accepted the help of well-meaning white liberals but understood the danger of that help. Their good intentions, he argued, too often ends with African Canadians failing to lead themselves from the negative effects of systemic racism. White liberal paternalism, he said, was as much the enemy as racism itself.
In November 1968, Oliver chaired a meeting in which leaders from Nova Scotia’s Black Community met with Stokely Carmichael of the American Black Panther organization. They agreed on problems and goals but Oliver rejected Black Panther tactics. From the meeting came the Black United Front. Led by Oliver, the BUF consulted broadly then presented recommendations to provincial and federal leaders. It asked for support to promote programs in schools and communities to teach African Canadian history and culture; build Black-owned businesses; and improve Black housing, education, and job opportunities.
Ottawa granted $470,000 to the BUF to pursue its mandate. Minister of Health and Welfare John Munro said he wanted the BUF to “raise hell” with the government to improve the lives of African Canadians throughout the country. Oliver accepted the challenge, travelling widely to find and inspire new Black leaders while lobbying the federal government for more support and legislative changes. Throughout the early 1970s, the BUF became an umbrella under which many small community organizations flourished.
In 1972, Oliver presented the idea of a Black Cultural Centre. It would, he said, present Black history and cultural achievements to the Black and White communities and thereby create better understanding among them while inspiring Blacks to build upon their pride. As the chair of the steering committee, Oliver lobbied the Nova Scotia and federal governments and Black leaders. In 1983, the Black Cultural Centre opened on Halifax’s Cherry Brook Road. It boasted a museum, research library, auditorium, and workshop rooms. It thrives today, offering permanent and travelling exhibits, school and community tours, and concerts and plays.
Oliver died in 1989 at age 77. He had been honoured with many awards including the Order of Canada. His legacy lives on through the Black Cultural Centre and in the minds of every child – Black and White – who believes that Black history is Canadian history and that racism has no place in our country or our hearts.
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