William Pearly Oliver Understood

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.

Active Preacher

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.

Community Organizer

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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Africville: Racism and Redemption

The bulldozers came in the morning. For days they roared like monsters demolishing houses and streets and even the church. They tore down what remained of Canada’s moral authority to say anything about race other than, “We were wrong.”

Africville was created in 1842 with land grants to African American families escaping slavery and discrimination for the hope of better lives. The original sixteen single-acre lots overlooked the Bedford Basin and were separated from Halifax, Nova Scotia by a thick woods and impassable road. The community was called Campbell Road. As Black families left the racism of Halifax and elsewhere seeking solace among friends it was dubbed ‘Africville’. The name stuck.

Links between Halifax and Africville grew over the years as kids were bussed to school and most of their parents worked in the city. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s a number of famous people visited, including retired boxing champion Joe Louis, and Duke Ellington who married an Africville woman named Mildred Dixon. Folks were thrilled with the celebrities but understood that their hospitality was essential because while Louis and Ellington were feted in Halifax during the day they were unable to find lodging in the segregated city at night.

In that way, Halifax was no different than most other cities and towns. The Queen may have been Canada’s head of state but Jim Crow was boss. African Canadians grew used to restaurants where they could not eat, churches in which they could not pray, houses they could not buy, business licenses for which they could not apply, and schools their children could not attend.

Africvillephoto credit: Halifax.com

By the 1950s Halifax had grown to encircle Africville. The city council embarked on a determined campaign to rid itself of the Black community that had become part of their city. Despite the fact that Africville’s people were Halifax citizens and paid municipal taxes, the road to and through the community was unpaved and in the winter it seldom saw a plow. There were no streetlights. There were no sewers. Families drew water from a central well that the city had dug as a “temporary measure” in 1852.

Police seldom patrolled and ignored most calls. In 1947, seven houses were destroyed by fire because, although the fire department had been called, like usual, it had not responded. Insurance companies refused to sell home and property policies, so banks issued neither mortgages or home improvement loans.

Africville churchphoto credit: Halifax.com

Everything distasteful and dirty went to Africville. With no consultation with Africville’s citizens, and in defiance of petitions and presentations, Halifax council located in or adjacent to the community a pungent slaughterhouse, oil refinery, and tar factory, a deafeningly loud stone crushing plant, and a hospital for infectious diseases. A railway company was allowed to build a line through the community and landowners were only partially compensated for expropriated land. The city dump was relocated 350 yards from west end Africville homes and then a smoke-belching incinerator was constructed nearby.

The disgraceful treatment of the community and the racism faced by those working in Halifax took its toll. Africville got tough. The “Mainline” portion of town was home to middle-class people who worked hard and did their best. The “Big Town” area, however, knew every crime and vice imaginable. The only white people who saw Africville came to Big Town for dirty old times after Halifax bars closed.

University of Toronto’s Gordon Stephenson wrote a report that echoed 1950s urban renewal practices. He recommended relocating Africville’s people and razing their homes. A 1962 Halifax Development Department report stated that the majority of Africville’s people did not want to leave; they just wanted the services that other Halifax citizens – White Halifax citizens – had enjoyed for decades. The report concluded, however, that the people should be ignored and the professor obeyed.

Concerned Africville citizens met at the heart of their community, the Seaview Church. Over a hundred people vowed to save their homes. Peter Edwards made an impassioned plea to city council on October 24, 1962. He spoke of Africville’s history and spirit. He spoke of the racist policies and treatment endured over the years and in the current process. “If they were a majority group,” he said, “you would have heard their impressions first.”

City council responded by hiring University of Toronto’s Albert Rose to study the situation. No one was fooled. Rose had written Regent Park: A Study for Slum Clearance. They knew what he would say. In no time at all he said it. Africville was doomed.

Residents received an average of $500 for their homes. It was later discovered that additional assistance had been available but only 30% of the people were told about it and then only 15% of applicants were approved. People who had been self-sufficient homeowners were forced into a subsidized housing project and then forced to move again when told that even before they had been crammed into the ramshackle apartments, the complex had been scheduled for demolition.

By 1969, Africville was gone. The city had said it needed the land for industrial expansion but it never happened. It said it needed the land to construct a bridge but ended up using a sliver of the property.

In 1985, a monument was erected to the people of Africville in what had become the Seaview Memorial Park. The names of the original families were engraved into a stone. Family reunions began finding their way home with grandchildren being told the old stories. A former resident recalls, “Out home, we didn’t have a lot of money but we had each other. After the relocation, we didn’t have a lot of money – but we didn’t have each other.”

Africville lives. It lives as a symbol of the more than three hundred years of systemic racism that African Canadians endured and against which they struggled. In 2010, the Halifax City Council apologized to the people of Africville for all they did to, and all they did not do for the community. It apologized for Africville’s destruction.

A hectare of land was set aside and money allocated to rebuild the Seaview United Baptist Church. It will serve as a historical interpretive centre in a park renamed Africville. There, stories will be told of a time when racism coursed through Canadian veins and of a hope that someday, racism will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Someday.

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