Africville: Halifax’s Urban Geography of Racism

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Article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of the Leveller

The houses near the Bedford Basin were painted all the colours of the rainbow. Residents described it as their “little piece of heaven.” For nearly 200 years, Nova Scotia’s Black population had fought and bought their way into a small community called Africville. It symbolized freedom and independence to an early population of former slaves and refugees; their descendants proudly called it home.

In 1964 however, the city of Halifax decided that Africville was a slum because it lacked infrastructure, which Halifax itself would not provide. The city perversely justified displacing the population for industrial benefits. Residents were driven from their homes into scattered public housing, their belongings transported in city dump trucks.

Africville formally existed at the margins of Halifax’s white community from 1848 until Dec. 30, 1969. Its population of refugees, escaped slaves, free men and women, and Loyalists from the war of 1812 began settling in Halifax as early as 1761.

Halifax refused social services and infrastructural development to Africville from beginning to end. Although forced displacement of residents did not commence until the 1960s, the writing was on the wall since at least 1915.

According to the minutes of Halifax City Council from Dec. 15, 1915, “The Africville portion of Campbell Road will always be an industrial district and it is desirable that industrial operations should be assisted in any way that is not prejudicial to the interests of the public. In fact, we may be obliged in the future to consider the interest of the industry first.”

Clearly, “the interests of the public” did not include the Black people who lived there.

Halifax surrounded Africville with four open-faced dumps, a bone meal plant, assorted factories, port facilities for handling coal, an infectious disease hospital and more. According to Denise Allen, vice president of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, “the dirtiest, smelliest, most toxic industries were located within earshot of the homes where children played, whereas all good paying jobs in the[se] industries that strangled Africville were reserved for Whites.”

Though Africville residents paid taxes, they received no plumbing, garbage/sanitation services, or other basics to which taxpayers are entitled. As Gus Wedderburn of the Halifax Human Rights Advisory Committee describes in the National Film Board documentary, Remember Africville, “Where the pavement ended, Africville began.”

In 1947, Halifax City Council designated Africville as industrial land, declaring on Jan. 15, 1948, “the property could be cleared in case some industry might want to go there.”

Just in case.

Later that year, the wells from which the community drew their drinking water became contaminated from growing industrial waste. Though the city approved new sanitation and water developments, they were never built. Instead, by 1955 the city relocated their dump to Africville and closed the Africville school. As part of the project of “desegregation,” Black children were streamlined into remedial learning programs in 1957 – they were previously barred by law from attending White schools.

By the 1960s, the city decided Africville needed to be expropriated entirely for industrial use, and justified this decision on the basis that it did not meet minimum sanitation standards. Rather than using some of the generations of tax dollars to improve Africville’s infrastructure by paving roads or building the long-promised plumbing, Halifax dismantled the community and dispersed the residents into public housing projects throughout Halifax. According to city officials interviewed for Remember Africville, many of the homes to which residents were moved were already condemned for demolition.

The policy of coercion and visual intimidation was the technique of choice to force residents out.  “When someone agreed to move or be moved, that same day they tore the house down…that had a psychological effect, so this was a method that they used,” Africville resident Archie Dixon reflects. There were no public consultations, and most people who left for substandard temporary public housing were given only $500 to start their lives anew.

The city demolished the last house on Jan. 2, 1970. It belonged to Aaron “Pa” Carvery. “The city gave the Africville people no deal at all,“ Pa reflects. “Some were put into places far worse than where they left.”

According to Clarence Carvery, who was a boy when Africville was destroyed, “I remember the trucks coming. I remember Mrs. Sarah Mountain’s house coming down. Torn down, never took a stitch of furniture…[never] gave her time to take a stitch of furniture out of her home…Mr. Jensey was in the hospital…They bulldozed the man’s house while he was in the hospital. Man came home he had nowhere to go.”

Where Africville once stood, a beacon of independence and pride for Black Canadians since the 1700s, there now exists a Memorial and Interpretive Centre…and a park for dogs.

“We are profoundly sorry and apologize to each and every one of you,” Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly said in a February 2010 news conference, announcing plans to build the centre.

Though the United Nations recommended that reparations be paid in 2004, there will be no resettlement and no city money will go towards paying reparations. According to the Halifax Media Co-op, the site will remain city property, except for areas that have been sold to private developers out of which a new community named Mont Blanc* (French for White Mountain) is developing. According to Allen,

“With the stroke of a pen he [Mayor Peter Kelly] has denigrated Africville’s past and reduced our vibrant Black community to a dog park, nothing but the token of a replica church to serve our memory.”

Canada appropriates the image of smuggling persecuted Black slaves to safety though the Underground Railroad as part of the nationalist project to differentiate between American racism and Canadian tolerance. Yet, it is worth remembering that while civil rights activists were fighting state racism in the United States, Halifax was in the midst of destroying one of the oldest and most independent Black communities in Canadian history.

*The community of Mont Blanc is named for one of the two ships that collided in the Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917. The ensuing explosion destroyed much of Halifax and neighbouring areas.


~ by bahtman on February 27, 2012.

One Response to “Africville: Halifax’s Urban Geography of Racism”

  1. Terrific site. Loads of practical facts right here. I am delivering that to some pals ans additionally discussing in delicious. And naturally, thank you on your hard work!

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