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:

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:

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: