The Black Loyalist Heritage Society in Birchtown, N.S., has gathered more than $4 million to build a new interpretive centre.

Elizabeth Cromwell, president of the society, said the money promised by the federal government this week means they can now rebuild the centre after it was destroyed in an apparent arson attack six years ago.

"It's a little surreal. We're so excited, but it's been a long time coming. There have been lots of setbacks," she told CBC Friday. "But this time it seems everything is lined up and we're ready to go."

She said the last year was a blur as they secured all the funding. The group has $4.3 million for the project:

  • $2.5 million from the federal government
  • $1 million raised by the Black Loyalist Heritage Society
  • $750,000 from the province of Nova Scotia
  • $50,000 from the district of Shelburne

Cromwell said raising $1 million was a major challenge.

"We had no idea how to go about fundraising that kind of money. It was a shock — it went from $460,000, 10 per cent of the project, to $1.5 million. We were stunned," she said.

But the society reached out and found willing donors. The business and architectural plans for the centre were in place before the 2006 fire, but that immediate crisis delayed plans for the centre.

Arson suspected in blaze

At the time, police said the fire was likely deliberately set. The society also thinks it was an arson attack and it destroyed the building, library, computers, valuable genealogical data, planning documents, as well as furniture and furnishings.

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The society's office was torched in 2006. (CBC)

The new display comes from the little school museum in Birchtown and reconstructed files on the Black loyalist families, among other sources. Cromwell is also hoping people will bring important items.

The centre will be the first of its kind in North America. It will present the Black Loyalists’ journey from Africa, to the United States in the early 18th century, to Birchtown in 1783 and, in some cases, back to Africa. The story will be told through public education programs, presentations, and year-round events for visitors of all ages.

The building will be constructed on land occupied by the Black Loyalists when they first settled in Nova Scotia, following the American Revolution. At that time, Birchtown became the largest settlement of free Black people outside of Africa.

Book of Negroes

Black Loyalists who passed through Birchtown later moved to other parts of Canada, Australia, Europe, and some returned to Africa, as depicted in Lawrence Hill's best-selling novel Book of Negroes.

"We're making connections with people who have some connection Black Loyalist history or Africa," Cromwell said. "There are people out there from all continents who have an interest in what is happening here."

She hopes the new centre will open by July 2013.

Bernard Valcourt, Minister of State for Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, said his Conservative government backed the project as part of its wider commitment to celebrating all of Canada's history. 

"Historically, Black Loyalists were an integral part of Nova Scotia and it is important that we honour their contribution today," said Valcourt. "This Heritage Centre will allow their descendants to tell future generations about their part in the ethnic fabric of this province."

The Black Loyalist Heritage Society, formed in 1990, is committed to discovering, interpreting, safeguarding, and promoting the history and heritage of the Black Loyalists.

The organization owns and operates a 2.5-acre site in Birchtown, where a small museum and heritage buildings tell the story of the Black Loyalist settlement.