Remembering this critical piece of maritime history
The next time you’re visiting Halifax, take some time to wander down near the Bedford Basin. When you reach where Seaview Park and MacKay Bridge are, you will be standing in what was once the heart of the community of Africville.
Africville’s exact settlement date is uncertain, with the first lands that the community was build upon purchased in 1848. It quickly became a vibrant Black community within the city boundaries of Halifax. It produced extraordinary singers like Portia White and boxers like George Dixon. Huge baptisms were organized every year during Easter, as the Seaview African United Baptist Church was central to the physical locale and spirit of the community. There was also a post office, school, and general store that contributed to daily community life.
However, Africville experienced its fair share of challenges. Over time, the city committed to building infrastructure that infringed on the overall quality of the community. For instance, they would had built prisons, an infectious disease hospital, railroads, and moved the town dump in or around Africville. Residents also lived without services like clean water, sewage, and fire safety, even though members of the community paid taxes.
Gradually, the undesirable services built around Africville by the city and the label of the community as a slum, sealed its fate. Halifax was growing rapidly and in turn, decided that Africville was the prime spot to expand industry to and a chance for “urban renewal.” And so, in 1962, the Halifax City Council purchased the land that made up Africville and the process of demolishing the community began, against the wishes of the community.
Africville would be emptied and razed to the ground house by house in the years following the Halifax City Council’s decision. Some of the luckier residents were given public housing, while others received small sums for their property and were told to start again elsewhere. The process of relocation was incredibly dehumanizing for the community, with houses being demolished overnight without warning and many being relocated using city dump trucks.
Africville was not forgotten after it ceased to exist physically. In 1985, the Africville Genealogy Society was formed and started to seek reparations for the destruction of the community. Eventually, over many years and after a statement from the United Nations that the treatment of Africville was a crime against humanity, Halifax and the AGS came to a settlement. The Mayor of Halifax, Peter Kelly, made a formal public apology, and 2.5 acres and $3 million was given towards the reconstruction of the church.
Africville holds many lessons in its history for present-day Canadians. Canada is often celebrated as a place where everyone is accepted and valued as either individuals or communities. However, in the case of Africville, many were willing to look the other way as the residents in Africville lived in deplorable conditions and were eventually stripped of their community. If Canadians cannot learn what turning a blind eye to injustice and racism causes, then we may need to do some serious work on upholding the values we proclaim from the rooftops to the world.
It's also time that we start talking about Africville outside of Maritime history classes at StFX. Nova Scotians and Canadians alike will benefit from the lessons that this community teaches about what racism in Canada looks like, and what steps can be taken to remedy or prevent that racism. It is far better to confront and discuss the perhaps uncomfortable facts of Canadian history, than to erase it entirely from our collective memory.
So, this African Heritage Month, take a moment to learn about the history of the unique and vibrant community of Africville. It serves as a reminder that Canada still had a long path to travel in dealing with racism within our borders, and in acknowledging our past mistakes.