Thursday February 18, 2016

Africville: A Community Destroyed

Listen to Full Episode 54:59
Africville Stamp

Canada Post's Africville stamp features seven young members of the community against a background illustration of its hills and homes. (Courtesy:Canada Post)

                                                                                                                                                                                   CBC Television's dramatization of The Book of Negroes - the best selling book by Lawrence Hill - draws attention to the black communities of Nova Scotia. That story is told at least partly in Birchtown, one of the places where free blacks lived. Another was Africville, just outside Halifax. It was a small settlement that former American slaves established in Nova Scotia after the War of 1812.  

Africville

Two boys lifting the cover of a well in Africville, with nearby sign reading "Please boil this water before drinking and cooking". (Nova Scotia Archives/Bob Brooks)

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Africville

Halifax city dump with Seaview African United Baptist Church and houses of Africville. (Nova Scotia Archives/Bob Brooks)

But by the mid 1960s, the impoverished conditions of Africville were a source of deep shame for the city. Its residents had no running water, no sewage system, no garbage pickup, no streetlights, no public transportation and no paved roads. Instead, Africville boasted an open dump, an incinerator, a prison, railway tracks and an abattoir on its doorstep.

Instead of fixing things, Halifax city officials decided to raze Africville. By 1967, after several years of study and talk, the city of Halifax planned to relocate the 400 citizens of Africville, demolish their houses and all community buildings. Rewind remembers the destruction of Africville and looks at both the causes and impact of the move.The voices you'll hear on this edition of Rewind first aired in a 1973 documentary on the CBC Radio program Between Ourselves. 

The relocation of Africville meant the end of a vibrant community coupled with feelings of grief, loss and outrage. In 1976, the CBC Radio program Identities looked at Africville again, in an attempt to figure out what had gone so wrong.  

Seaview United Baptist Church

The replica of Nova Scotia's historic Africville church. (CBC)

The Seaview Baptist Church was the heart of the Africville. It wasn't just the place of worship in the community; it was the town hall, the business centre, the place where Bible classes were held and youth clubs met.

Africville

Sharon Lee Williams, Joe Sealy (CBC Still Photo Collection/Fred Phipps)

Forty three years later, in February of 2010, the Halifax council along with the government of Canada issued an official apology for the destruction of Africville and pledged $250,000 to rebuild the church. The new Seaview African United Baptist Church opened in September 2011. 

The place where Africville stood is now a park. Every summer, people who lived in Africville along with their descendants, hold a reunion there. Many camp on the site of their former homes. Today, the Africville Museum looks across the land where the residents of Africville lived, worked, and raised their families. Exhibits in the museum walk visitors through the history of a proud community determined to overcome injustice and maintain its identity. For an Africville "timeline", and to learn more about the Africville Heritage Trust, visit the  Africville Museum website.

A number of musicians have written songs about Africville. Joe Sealy is one of them. In the mid 1990s, Sealy dedicated his album Africville Suite to his father, who had been born there.  The album won a Juno award, and Sealy has performed it live on many occasions.