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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10 Minute Walk took 300 Years

Canada is a large and diverse country and so someone who is well known in one region may be a stranger elsewhere. Such is the case with Wayne Adams. Mr. Adams is a Canadian we should all know.

Adams was born in Halifax. His father died when he was 13. His teen years were shaped by a number of positive role models including his mother, uncles, and church and community leader Reverend W. P. Oliver. All inspired him to be industrious, consider others, and work hard to achieve his goals.

Adams’s first full-time employment was at a Halifax Chevrolet dealership. His diligence and initiative led to his becoming the service sales manager and then Halifax’s first African-Canadian new car salesman and, later, used car manager. He then became the manager of the province’s first indoor service station. With the opening of his Shell station in Lower Sackville, Adams became Nova Scotia’s first African-Canadian service station owner-operator.

Always interested in the news and current affairs, Adams became a broadcast journalist. He became widely known in 1969 for his reporting on Canada’s first Summer Games, held on the campus of Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University. Adams created the Black Journal in 1972 which, until its demise in 1978, reported on news and ideas from an African-Canadian perspective.

Politics

Adams had shown an interest in politics when he was elected to the Student’s Council at Halifax Vocational High School. In 1979, his concern with environmental and economic issues and the manner in which the needs of Halifax’s African-Canadians were being ignored led to his running for municipal office. He understood the challenges facing an African-Canadian in local politics because the city had elected its first African-Nova Scotian, Graham Downey, only five years before. He won a seat on the municipal council of what was then Halifax County. His popularity and hard work led to his being re-elected five times and serving for fifteen years. From 1982 to 1983, Adams was Halifax’s, Deputy Mayor.

In late 1992, Adams announced his intention to run for a seat in the Nova Scotia legislature as a member of the Liberal Party. He was enthusiastically supported by many people but he also confronted blatantly racist insults and incidents. He later said, “That kind of negative reaction just exhilarated my efforts to go on and run and win.”

On May 25, 1993, Wayne Adams was elected to represent the overwhelmingly Black riding of Preston and became the first African-Canadian elected to the Nova Scotia legislature. He received letters of congratulations from across Canada. Premier John Savage understood the significance of his election. He quipped that Adams lived only a ten-minute walk from the legislature building but it had taken him 300 years to get here. Adams became the first African-Canadian in Nova Scotia’s cabinet when he was appointed the minister responsible for the Emergency Measures Act, the minister responsible for the Nova Scotia Boxing Authority, and, his most challenging and rewarding portfolio, minister of the environment.

Among his accomplishments was the development of Canada’s first Solid Waste Management Strategy. Implemented in 1995, within five years it had diverted 50% of waste from landfills through a number of initiatives including a recycling program that banned landfills from accepting items such as tin and glass food and beverage containers, corrugated cardboard, compostable organics, and hazardous materials. The strategy also created the Resource Recovery Fund Board, waste management regions, enviro-depots, and a centralized composting system. Related legislation reduced the number of landfills by 75% and introduced stricter guidelines for those remaining that significantly reduced the pollution of adjacent rivers and streams.

Adams also introduced important amendments to the Protected Spaces Act that preserved nearly 8,000 acres of environmentally significant land by bringing it under public control. He also led the reengagement of old trade agreements between Nova Scotia and Caribbean island nations that led to delegations from Canadian environmental industries making deals in Trinidad, Port of Spain, and Barbados.

While Adams was accomplishing a great deal, the government became increasingly unpopular. As a result, many Liberals lost their seats in the 1998 provincial election, including Adams.

Continuing Community Engagement

Adams remained active and influential in the Halifax Board of Trade and Lions Club. He served as an elder in his church, an executive member of the Atlantic Baptist Convention, and was active with the Nova Scotia African Baptist Association. He served as the director of the Halifax Citadel Amateur Boxing club and chair of the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children. In 2011, he was invited to the first United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent. He told reporters, “There’s strength when you come together…There has to be a mass education, and that comes when you have policy in the corporate sector, as well as the government.”

Wayne Adams

Adams’ ongoing dedication to environmental issues was demonstrated by his becoming the founding president of Chebucto Windfields; a company focusing on creating power through wind generation. Adams also became president of the Nova Scotia Environmental Industries Association. The not-for-profit organization promotes environmental services and products while linking the federal and provincial governments, universities, and businesses to promote progress in matters such as hazardous materials management, fish and wildlife habitat preservation, and environmental research.

In 2003, Adam founded and became CEO of the Adams Consulting and Management Group. It brings together governments, businesses, and interested parties to advance initiatives that address community economic development, renewable energy systems, and product development while promoting business opportunities for Atlantic-Canadian entrepreneurs. Adams is also the Special Project Coordinator with Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc. where he oversees the inventory of agriculture and fishery businesses owned by or located in Nova Scotia’s Black communities while advocating for entrepreneurs in those communities.

Among Adams’ many awards is the Order of Canada. At his May 2004 investure, it was stated, “As a volunteer, businessman, and politician, Wayne Adams has paved the way for generations of young people.” In a 2004 CBC Radio interview, Adams summed up the principle that guides his life, saying, “It is all of our tasks to make the world a better place. The 300-year walk was worth every step.

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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Racist Canada and the Woman You Should Know

Everyone remembers Rosa Parks. When asked to get up and move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Parks opted to stay put. She was hauled off and arrested. Her refusal to move started a movement. In 1946, nine years before Parks’ courageous act of civil disobedience, Canada’s Viola Desmond showed similar grit in a similar act that drew attention to a similar culture of injustice.

Born in 1914, Desmond grew up in a middle class Halifax neighbourhood with her nine brothers and sisters. A bright young girl, she excelled at her studies. For a while she taught school but then fulfilled her dream to become a beautician. After training in Montreal, New York and Atlantic City she returned home to form the Desmond School of Beauty Culture for Girls. Desmond was talented at her craft and a clever entrepreneur who was soon inspiring dozens of young women every year to start their own businesses offering hair styling and other beauty services and  advice.

Image Viola Desmond

On a cool November evening in 1946, Desmond was on her way to a business meeting in Sydney when her car broke down in New Glasgow. After arranging for repairs, she decided to pass the time by taking in a movie at the Roseland Theatre. She purchased a ticket but was stopped from entering the main floor seating area by a huffy, young usher who said that her ticket was for her place – the place for Black people – up in the balcony. Desmond said no. She offered to pay the one cent extra for a main floor seat but the man behind the ticket booth glass refused and told her to get upstairs. Instead, she walked past the startled usher and took a seat in the all-White main floor.

This was not Rosa Parks’ deep American south but Nova Scotia. However, for Desmond that afternoon and for Black Nova Scotians for generations, the difference was only one of geography. Racism had been a part of Canada’s past since the first Black slave arrived with Champlain in 1605. Slave labour was used to build a number of Canadian towns including Halifax. The city’s port was an important link in the Atlantic slave trade. Slave auctions were a common sight. After the American Revolution, thousands of people loyal to the British crown came to Nova Scotia and about 10% were Black slaves or freedman.

By the twentieth century, slavery was long gone but racial discrimination remained. Canada saw race riots and knew racially segregated schools, churches and services as well as race-based immigration policies and hiring and business practices. In Halifax, Black families were kept in specific neighbourhoods and just outside the city the all-Black community of Africville was offered no municipal services. It was with this racist reality in mind that one better understands the courage that Viola Desmond showed when taking her ticket for the Black balcony of the Roseland Theatre and walking defiantly to a White seat.

The movie did not begin and the lights remained on. Soon, a police officer arrived. Desmond explained that she had offered to pay the extra one cent for the main floor seat but the cop did not want to hear it. She was pulled up, dragged out and slammed in jail. Her hip had been injured and her dignity abused. She spent the night sitting upright on her small, hard bed in her cold, tiny cell.

Desmond was taken to court the next morning. She was offered neither a lawyer nor legal advice. The judge informed her that she was being charged with defrauding the provincial government based on her taking a seat that cost one cent more than the ticket she had purchased. He ruled inadmissible that she had offered to purchase a main floor ticket. Desmond was fined $26.

She could have easily paid the fine and put it all behind her; but she decided to fight. A lawyer was contacted and Desmond sued the Roseland Theatre and its manager for having her ejected from the theatre and for the assault, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment that followed. The case went to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court which on a legal technicality ruled against her.

What was quickly lost in court was slowly won in the often higher court of public opinion. The incident and case had garnered headlines. The Nova Scotia National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People used the case to publicize the injustice of racial discrimination and to raise money to fight for change.

In 1954, Nova Scotia’s legislature finally put an end to state-sanctioned segregation. While the laws had changed, however, the racism that had created them in the first place remained as did many of the Jim Crow practices that had been around for generations. However, with the laws gone, progress was at least being made and those who continued discriminatory practices were supported only by their hatred and ignorance.

Viola Desmond paid a significant price for her brave stand. Her husband did not continence her fight and their marriage ended. The pressure on her and her business led to her leaving Halifax and relocating in Montreal. Desmond died in February, 1965. At that point the fight for rights had progressed but was far from over. Africville was still struggling to save itself in a battle it would lose a few years later to small minds and big bulldozers. Discrimination was gone from the law but prejudice remained in far too many hearts.

In 2010, the Nova Scotia government pardoned Viola Desmond. Later that year, Cape Breton University established the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice. In 2012, Canada Post issued a Viola Desmond stamp.

Canada and Canadians have come a long way. It has most often been determined groups and courageous individuals who have forced reluctant leaders to take each tentative step toward a more just society. Our job is to honestly admit our past and atone for our crimes and hateful attitudes while celebrating our progress. There must be reconciliation with truth. There must also be the recognition that national progress begins with individual beliefs and actions. Our personal and collective introspection must also include an offering of thanks to those whose acts of personal courage and conviction shine lights on the dark shadows of injustice. Let us continue to take steps toward becoming the people we deserve to be. Let us thank Viola Desmond.

To explore more about the racism in Canada’s past see Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism.  Available here: http://www.amazon.ca/Last-Steps-Freedom-Evolution-Canadian/dp/1896239404/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1402154251&sr=1-