Nova Scotia

Father-son journey to Digby County shines light on little-known Black history

Noah Cain from Halifax, N.S., never imagined his African Nova Scotian History Challenge project about the Conway cemetery would spark a summer road trip with his dad.  

Conway cemetery one of last remnants of Black Loyalist community

The Black Loyalist cemetery in Conway, N.S., is on Highway 303, overlooking the Annapolis Basin. (Brian McConnell)

There's no sign marking the Black Loyalist cemetery in Conway, N.S.

The humble field with a dozen or so faded tombstones sits on the main road to Digby, across the street from a car dealership. 

It's a serene spot overlooking the water that's easy to miss, even when you're looking for it.

That's what happened to 13-year-old Noah Cain and his dad when they made the two-hour drive from Halifax earlier this month to experience in person what the Grade 8 student had spent hours researching online.

Father and son ended up asking staff at a nearby gas station for directions. 

"They happened to be Caucasian and I said, 'Do you know where the Black cemetery is in Digby, in Conway?' And they looked at me like I had five heads. They had no idea what I was talking about," Noah's dad, Sheldon Cain, told CBC's Information Morning

"And then by the grace of God there was a Black man there and he knew exactly what I was talking about."

Sheldon Cain and his 13-year-old son Noah travelled to Digby County for the first time this month. (Sheldon Cain)

The cemetery is one of the last remnants of a historic Black community called Brinley Town that formed around 1785.

Back then, 65 families lived on about 75 acres of land, making it the second largest Black Loyalist settlement in the province. Birchtown was the largest.

But the community all but vanished a few years later, and little is known about it, although the Cains hope their journey changes that. 

"I work with Black youth and I try to educate them and let them know about their history because there is a lot that they don't know and there's some stuff that I even still learn," said Cain, who is an African Nova Scotian student support worker. 

"Any kind of history you can find, I think, you've got to pass on and let everyone know."

Standing next to history

Noah's project about the Conway cemetery was a winner in the Delmore Buddy Daye Institute's annual African Nova Scotian History Challenge earlier this year.

The teen picked Conway from a list of communities, knowing nothing about it and never realizing it would spark an August road trip with his dad. 

"It was a nice experience to see what I was writing about in person, not just look it up on a computer," Noah said. "It was nice to be standing next to a piece of history."

He said the cemetery was smaller than he imagined. 

"To me, it didn't look like a lot," he said. "There were some [tombstones] with writing on them, but it looked kind of carved off and faded so I couldn't really read some of them."

At least 67 people are buried at the cemetery but many more don't have headstones. (Sheldon Cain)

More than 3,000 Black Loyalists settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the late 1700s. They fled the U.S. with the promise of refuge in Canada, but that's not what they found. 

The Black Loyalists faced racism and were given smaller plots of land than white settlers and paid lower wages.

Allister Barton, an amateur genealogist, has traced his family tree back to the Black Loyalists and Black Pioneers of Brinley Town.

"When we think about Black history in Nova Scotia, we immediately think of Africville, the Jamaican Maroons, Viola Desmond and other highlights that come to mind. Brinley Town is not one of them," Barton said.

In fact, by the early 1790s the town had all but disappeared as about 70 per cent of the residents left for Sierra Leone.

Allister Barton spent two years tracing his family roots to the Black Loyalists of Digby and now gives presentations around the province. (Allister Barton)

"The challenges and the successes of Brinley Town, what happened after Brinley Town was depopulated, are mysteries to mostly everyone," Barton said. 

He believes it's important to remember the people who stayed. At least 67 people are known to be buried in the Conway cemetery and there are many more without headstones. 

Brian McConnell, president of the Nova Scotia chapter of the United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada, has included a section on Brinley Town in his new book, Loyalist History of Nova Scotia

He's glad to see Noah's commitment to uncovering the history of the community.

"I would like to see Brinley Town recognized because it's definitely a part of the local history," McConnell said.

'Something I'll never forget'

Cain discovered his own family's connection to the Black Loyalists during a trip to the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Shelburne a few years ago. 

He said visiting the cemetery and seeing names, like Barton and Johnson, makes him feel connected to the people who arrived in Nova Scotia with nothing. 

Conway now makes up the area that was once known as Brinley Town. (Brian McConnell)

"You've got to start from scratch on your own, like no one's helping you, and to be able to survive and live, it's just like, wow," Cain said.

He calls the trip "a generational, lifetime experience" and he hopes it's a memory his son shares with his own kids someday.

"To be able to go to this very important part of history with my son, just me and him going for the first time together on this journey, was something I'll never forget."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from CBC's Information Morning