Nova Scotia

Black Loyalist Rose Fortune recognized for historical significance

Born into slavery, Rose Fortune overcame many barriers before launching a successful business and becoming Canada’s first female police officer. Now, she's attained national recognition.

New plaque unveiled on Annapolis Royal waterfront a ‘lasting legacy’

A plaque honouring Black Loyalist Rose Fortune has gone up along the Annapolis Royal waterfront. (Parks Canada)

A permanent commemoration to Rose Fortune has been erected in Annapolis Royal, the town where she achieved the many accomplishments that led her to become a recognized part of Canadian history.

"It's a lasting legacy," said Juanita Peters, Fortune's great-great-great granddaughter. 

Born into slavery, Fortune was a child when she arrived in colonial Nova Scotia in the late 1700s as part of the Black Loyalist migration. 

As an adult, she started a successful baggage-carting business along Annapolis Royal's waterfront, toting goods and luggage in a wheelbarrow. That business was maintained by a grandson-in-law into the 1980s. 

This 1830s watercolour by an unknown artist shows Fortune in middle age. (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management)

She also helped keep order along the docks, and is widely considered to be Canada's first female police officer — a huge feat in a time where major civil rights and feminist movements were still more than a century away.

"What respect she must have commanded from people for them to actually listen to her," said Peters.

"In a day when women didn't even have a vote, for a woman to be telling someone, especially a man, what they could and could not do — and she was telling people of all races — I think that's hugely significant."

'It's going to be there for centuries'

Fortune was named a National Historic Person in January 2018, and on Saturday, a plaque was unveiled in her honour on the Annapolis Royal waterfront, in the area where she worked nearly 200 years ago.

The commemoration meant a great deal to Peters and Fortune's many other descendants.

"It's not something that's going to be there for five or 10 years, it's going to be there for centuries," she said.

"It is an absolute record of fact that Rose Fortune existed, that Rose Fortune did what she did."


Peters, 56, said she didn't know much about her great-great-great grandmother until around 20 years ago because her story wasn't as open and public as it is today.

But while Fortune's accomplishments are now well-known in Annapolis Royal and among the African Nova Scotian community, Peters said it's important that all Canadians become familiar with her story.

"Unless people hear more stories about people like Rose, it's easy for people to tell stories which are not complimentary of different races or different ethnic groups," she said.

"It's really important for people to see this story and reimagine all the things that Rose Fortune had to do to survive in Canada."

Few complete life stories of Black Loyalists remain today.

A testament to untold stories

Fortune's commemoration was years in the making.

Alan Melanson, past president of The Historical Association of Annapolis Royal, said the association first nominated Fortune to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as a person of national significance in 2014.

Since then, he said the association has been working with the government and Fortune's descendents to erect the plaque for the association's centennial year. The unveiling drew a crowd of more than 200 people.

"The hardships, struggle, courage [and] commitment that Rose Fortune showed is something that anyone can relate to," said Melanson.

Fortune's story is well known in Annapolis Royal, but Melanson hopes this recognition will help other Canadians learn her story. (Robert Short/CBC)

The plaque is mounted on a large boulder donated by Fred Bailey, another one of Fortune's descendants.

Melanson added that the town has named the plaza where the plaque is now mounted as the Rose Fortune Plaza as a testament to the stories of African Canadians and women who may have been overlooked in Canadian history.

"The story of Rose Fortune epitomizes the perseverance of Black Loyalists who confronted prejudice and inequality to make a place for themselves in Canada," he said.

Durline Melanson, Alan's wife and the association's current president, said Fortune's story was an inspiration to anyone who had to overcome prejudice and hardship.

"She not only survived. She thrived," she said. 

"If there were more Rose Fortunes in the world, I think this would be a kinder, gentler and certainly a more productive place."

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Alex Cooke

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Alex is a reporter living in Halifax. Send her story ideas at alex.cooke@cbc.ca