Africville: A Story of Environmental Racism

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This post originally appeared on The Journal: Saint Mary’s University’s Independent Student Publication.



Africville was a small Black village on the southern shore of the Bedford Basin that only existed from the 1800s until 1970. The community itself was quite self-sufficient. It had its own family-operated stores, a post office, a school, and even a church. Long after the village was gone, the church bell has remained a symbol of the once-thriving community of African settlers at the Bedford Basin. 

With the civil unrest following the American Revolution, formerly enslaved settlers began to arrive in Nova Scotia. Segregation was still the norm, and so the city of Halifax designated the North End as a suitable location for these ‘displaced people.’ The municipal government effectively minimized their interactions with the white communities living further away in the heart of the city. This is when the story of Africville begins.

It’s important to note that this land was deemed inhospitable prior to the formation of the village. Despite this, the residents thrived, finding a stable means of living from fishing and “proximity to waged employment in Halifax.” (Bernard & Vincer, 2014).

“You weren’t isolated at any time living in Africville. You always felt at home; the doors were open. That is one of the most important things that has stayed with me throughout my life.”

Irvine Carvery

With only 80 families and 400 residents, the community was tight-knit and was nicknamed the African village. According to former resident, Irvine Carvery, “You weren’t isolated at any time living in Africville. You always felt at home; the doors were open. That is one of the most important things that has stayed with me throughout my life.”

A dirt street lined with small wooden houses with laundry lines in front of them.
Houses in Africville with laundry hanging on the line. 1960. Halifax Municipal Archives, Wikimedia Commons.

Neglect and Industrialization

The story of discrimination began primarily with mismanagement by the authorities. While residents of Africville paid their share of taxes, they were denied the most basic of services such as paved roads, running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, street lamps, garbage removal, a cemetery or even police security that their tax-paying white neighbourhoods enjoyed. Despite frequent protests and petitions for these amenities, the village remained largely neglected by the Nova Scotian government. 

In 1854, a railway extension was built right through the village, expropriating and destroying several homes in the process. Homeowners protested about the lack of compensation for their devastated homes and the dangers and pollution of speeding trains but to no avail. Starting from 1912 until the 1940s, more and more land was taken away from the community to expand the railway. The Halifax Explosion of 1917 also damaged Africville, but of the millions of dollars that poured in from donations to rebuild Halifax, none went into reconstructing and modernizing the village as with the other neighbourhoods devastated by the explosion. Yet, the residents managed to pull together on their own and keep the community going.

By the second half of the 19th century, the City of Halifax had started to place undesirable services in Africville, declaring that the village “will always be an industrial district.” These “services” included a fertilizer plant, slaughterhouses, Rockhead prison, human waste disposal pits, and the Infectious Disease Hospital.

A garbage dump with smoke coming off it.
Old Halifax City Dump just west of Africville. 1964. Credit: Ted Grant / Library and Archives Canada / PA-

In the 1950s, the city was considering several locations for an open-pit dump. The council recognized it as a “health menace” and would not consider other locations, seeing that residents would find it unacceptable. Council eventually voted to place the dump 350m away from the west side of Africville. This decision seemed to be made without concern for the wellbeing of the village residents, and the council certainly did not consult them prior to decision-making or planning. As a result, by the 1960s, many white Haligonians began referring to Africville as a slum built by scavengers. This view of the village helped the white public to accept its ultimate demolition.

End of Segregation and Urban Relocation

By 1956 and 1957, reports on rehousing projects were already being prepared for the council to remove residents from Africville. At a public meeting of the community in 1962, 100 Africville residents voted against relocation and were reported to have said they would prefer to improve conditions in the existing community rather than leave. Joe Skinner, a homeowner in an interview with CBC at the time, said, “I think we should have a chance to redevelop our own property as well as anybody else. When you are in this country and you own a piece of property, you’re not a second-class citizen…But when your land is being taken away from you, and you ain’t offered nothing, then you become a peasant – in any man’s country.”

A view of several small houses in Africville in 1960.
Several houses in Africville. 1960. Halifax Municipal Archive, Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, Halifax council voted in favour of “urban renewal” with the promise to provide residents with superior housing in Halifax. In 1964, the first piece of land was expropriated and over the course of the next five years, more and more homes were bulldozed and many residents moved to public housing. At one point, a city-organized moving company cancelled, leaving residents of Africville stranded. Residents and their possessions ended up being removed from Africville via dump trucks, further compounding the prevailing prejudice and stigma surrounding the village.

Many of the homeowners of Africville were not priorly informed about the razing of their homes; others were given a few hours’ notice. For those who had their property deeds, Halifax paid them only enough to secure a down payment on new property. Those who did not have their deeds were not compensated in any way. With the fall of the cultural centre of the community in 1967 – the Seaview United Baptist Church – most of the residents accepted their fate and moved out of the village. In 1969, the last property was demolished and the entire land was repossessed by the government.

Unfortunately, former Africville residents soon realized that the city’s promises for a ‘home-for-a-home’ would not materialize. With discrimination affecting job prospects in the city, most residents moved away to Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg. The few that remained were left to turn to welfare as living costs began to rise in the city.

Eddie Carvery, a former resident, returned to the former Africville in 1970 to protest its unjust destruction. He was 24 at the time. For five decades, he occupied the site for periodic intervals and demanded a public inquiry and satisfactory compensation for its former residents. In November 2019, his protest camp was taken down presumably by the Africville Heritage Trust, bidding the end to one of the longest civil rights protests in Canada. Needless to say, despite his best efforts, the Africville community is now part of provincial history.

Today

In 1996, the site of Africville was declared a National Historic Site, referring to it as “a site of pilgrimage for people honouring the struggle against racism.” On February 24th, 2010, Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly apologized for the destruction of the site. Reactions were mixed: while some cheered, others are adamant that it’s not enough. 

2012 Replica of the Seaview United Baptist Church. Image by DRheaume, Wikimedia Commons.

In 2012, the city built a replica church of the Seaview United Baptist Church which opened as a church museum, and the area was renamed Africville Park. On the 30th of January 2014, a commemorative stamp was issued by the Canada Post Corporation depicting a photograph of seven girls with the backdrop of an illustrated village.

On Nova Scotia Heritage Day 2020 (February 15), the provincial government issued the return of the bell that had once hung from the church in Africville to be placed on the land outside the Africville Museum.


What happened in Africville for almost 170 years was a slew of systematic racist undertakings on part of the council of Halifax, and largely backed by the perceptions of the wider public. Today, the legacy left behind by this little village is one of perseverance and the fight against violations of the rights of marginalized communities.


Feature Image: A young boy in Africville, 1965. Credit: Ted Grant/Library and Archives Canada/PA-170234.

References

  • Matthew McRae, “The story of Africville,” Canadian Museum of Human Rights, https://humanrights.ca/story/the-story-of-africville.
  • “Watch & Learn: Remember Africville,” Discover Halifax, https://discoverhalifaxns.com/handpickedhalifax/nfb-doc-remember-africville/.
  • Celine Cooper and Clayton Ma, “Africville,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/africville.
  • Bernard, W. T. & Vincer, M. P. (2014). “Africville: The Uprooting of Citizens from their territory in Modern Day Halifax”. in Dominelli & Moosa-Mitha (eds.), Reconfiguring Citizenship: Social Exclusion and Diversity within Inclusive Citizenship Practices. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing. 45-54.
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Aiman Khan

Lifestyle Contributor at The SMU Journal
Aiman Khan is a third-year Bachelor of Commerce student majoring in accounting at Saint Mary's University located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Aiman has a passion for journalism and research. Aiman is a teaching assistant and the lifestyle writer for the Saint Mary's University's Journal Publishing Society (The SMU Journal).

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