Black Loyalist Heritage Centre opens in Birchtown this weekend

The new Black Loyalist Heritage Centre opens in Birchtown this weekend, opening up a world of genealogy that some Nova Scotians say has been left out of the history books for too long.

The new centre is around 10,000 square feet and has a new exhibit, office and gift shop

The new Black Loyalist Heritage Centre opens in Birchtown this weekend, opening up a world of genealogy that some Nova Scotians say has been left out of the history books for too long. 

The new centre is around 10,000 square feet and features a new interactive exhibit, administrative office and gift shop. 

The centre replaces its predecessor, which burned down in 2006. Though many visual records were destroyed, this new centre promises to bring access to family trees for people who want to trace their history through the centuries.

The building's design represents many symbols of African-Canadian history. A pathway illustrates the point of no return for Africans boarding slave ships. The building's tower is round, symbolizing the shape of traditional African huts. 

Beverly Cox, the centre's site manager, said the new museum will act as a hub of black loyalist history in Nova Scotia. It also serves as a reminder of the many communities around the province in which many black settlers lived. 

"It's a chapter in history that has been forgotten," she said. "So, the [centre] brings that history alive and exposes it to the world." 

In the 1780s, Birchtown was the largest free Black community in British North America, with over 3,000 settlers.

Starting point

Elizabeth Cromwell, the founder and president of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, admits to being a little overwhelmed with the last-minute preparations before Saturday's grand opening. But, she said the thrill of the centre's fruition is worth the years of work.  

Elizabeth Cromwell, founder and president of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, said she is thrilled about the centre's opening after years of work. (CBC)

"It's hard to believe that we've actually reached the point where we're actually going to celebrate the opening of this building," she said. 

"[The centre] was just something that happened in terms of finally realizing that there were children in our community that couldn't do their genealogy, who didn't know who they were, who had no history … When I went to school, it was never taught." 

Re-introducing the history of black loyalists to classrooms in Nova Scotia is something Cromwell has said she will continue to pursue.

Personal stories

On paper, many of the black men and women in Nova Scotia held certificates that they were free. Their lives, however, were far from easy.

One of the first race riots in North America raged on the streets of Shelburne in July 1784, not far from where the museum has been built.

"Once they got here, they found they had to fight for employment," said genealogist and historian Deborah Hill. "There's a large segment, even more than what's recorded—even more than Statistics Canada numbers give us—of people who are descended from the black loyalists who arrived here in 1783."

22-year-old Kaitlyn Hill was just hired at the centre as a tour guide when she learned her family tree dates back to one of Birchtown's first settlers. (CBC)

Kaitlyn Hill, 22, had just been hired as a tour guide for the centre when she learned she is a direct descendant to one of the area's first settlers, Joseph Hartley.

"I got a piece of paper that described exactly where my roots came from," she said. "This is my homeland where everything started. This is who I am. I am a descendant of the black loyalists."

Hill explained knowing how far back her history goes, in fact, makes her job as tour guide easier.

"It's important to me because I never really know who my ancestors were until yesterday," she said. 

For the centre's grand opening on Saturday, African Nova Scotian artists will be featured in The Journey Back to Birchtown. The free-of-charge, multimedia stage presentation will feature JRDN, Jeremiah Sparks, Dutch Robinson, Shelley Hamilton, Cyndi Cain, Nova Scotia Mass Choir, the Sierra Leone dancers, Shauntay Grant, Hillcrest Academy Djembe Group and more. 

The museum opens at 9 a.m. 


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