Nova Scotia

How 2 students uncovered Antigonish's long-forgotten Black housing co-operative

The co-operative was started by Chantal and Jordan Phee's great-grandparents when several Black families were displaced decades ago to make room for a highway.

Co-op started in the 1960s after some families were displaced to make way for the Trans-Canada Highway

Chantal, left; Sylvia, centre; and Jordan Phee, right, are seen standing on Martin Street in Antigonish, N.S. Their relatives built the houses seen in the background in the 1960s after being displaced when the Trans-Canada Highway was being built. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

A pair of siblings in Antigonish, N.S., have uncovered the history of a Black housing co-operative started by their great-grandparents in the 1960s — a history that was nearly lost to time. 

It all started decades ago when Jim and Mary Agnes Phee, along with several other Black families who had been living near St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, were told to leave their homes to make way for the new Trans-Canada Highway.

Displaced and without anywhere to go, the families were approached by staff with the university's extension department about using Moses Coady's co-operative housing model. Coady, who was a priest, educator and entrepreneur, helped establish the Antigonish Movement in the 1920s, an economic and social justice initiative focused on serving disadvantaged people.

The partnership between the families and the department would later become Antigonish's first Black housing co-operative, called the Martin Street Housing Co-op.

Still, as the families tried to find a location for the co-op, including on West and Hawthorne streets, they faced resistance from white people who feared their properties would be devalued if Black families moved in next door

Eventually, the co-op came to an agreement to buy the land that has since become Martin Street in Antigonish.

Chantal and Jordan Phee, the great-grandchildren of Jim and Mary Agnes, only heard about this history about 10 years ago, when they were still in school.

Martin Street, where the houses now sit, was named after St. Martin de Porres, a 17th century Black Peruvian and the patron saint of social justice and racial harmony. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

Their parents had been chatting with their grandfather, Johnnie Phee, and aunt, Bette Phee, when the co-op came up in conversation. Intrigued by the story, which had seldom been told, Chantal and Jordan's parents starting recording.

That recording is what Chantal, who was in Grade 7 at the time, used for the basis of a heritage project she was working on for school.

"They talked a lot about the university and how the university just didn't want African Canadian people anywhere close to the highway or the university itself," said Chantal, who is now 23 and is pursuing a bachelor's degree in sociology at St. FX.

"So they wanted to push them as far off the grid as they could." 

Jordan, who is now 19, went on to complete a similar research project in middle school.

"We're deep into our heritage, so as soon as we heard we were part of the first [Black] co-op housing development in Antigonish, we were very curious about how it was built, what happened, why people were moved out of their homes and forced to make new ones," Jordan said.

Through their research and talking with relatives, the siblings discovered the displaced families had accepted the extension department's help to start a housing co-op.

The families went on to build five modest and identical three-bedroom houses, one by one, on what was then just open fields.

Chantal, Sylvia and Jordan Phee are seen standing on Martin Street in Antigonish. The 5 homes that their relatives built in the 1960s are seen in the background. (Rose Murphy/CBC)

The street — where the houses still sit — was even named by Mary Agnes, who called it St. Martin Street after St. Martin de Porres, a 17th century Black Peruvian and the patron saint of social justice and racial harmony.

It is now known as Martin Street, and four out of the five houses are still owned by the original families.

The siblings said this history was important to them because they basically grew up on the street, walking from house to house, playing cards with their grandfather, spending summers there, visiting after school and celebrating Christmas with relatives.

Chantal said through her research, she's been able to foster strong relationships with her aunts, uncles and cousins, with staff at the local history museum and with her Black professors at St. FX.

"It was really hard to identify with a group of people [in Antigonish] … but it almost made a community for me that I didn't have at the beginning, which was really nice for me because those were some hard years in middle school," she said.

Jordan said the project also allowed them to put their family's experiences and hardships into perspective.

"It's fascinating to see that they're so successful now, when they had such a hard childhood, and that just gives us the ambition to make our parents proud and do what we can."

Lack of documentation

Sylvia Phee, Chantal and Jordan's mother, said not much was known about the Black housing co-op until they started researching their family history for the school projects.

"Sadly, there's not a lot of documentation … you know, when it's important to people, they document information on it," Sylvia said. 

"When it's insignificant and it's something that they don't see as important — and in the '60s, anything to do with the Black community was not considered significant enough to care about —  it's like they push them to the outskirts."

Sylvia said her children's late grandfather, Johnnie, was a great resource. He lived in one of the five houses with his wife, Louise.

"They have such rich history and nobody knew.… He never really came out and said, 'They didn't like me because of who I was or what colour my skin was.' He would never come out and say that because that's not who he [was], so he just kind of would say, 'Well, you know, it was what it was and how it was back then,'" she said.

"Then you look … at today compared to then. We have made progress, but we still need to make more progress."

Now, the siblings are hoping to document and share the history of their family and the Black housing co-op so it isn't forgotten again.

"It is super important that we spread out and give that information out to the public so other people can be educated and know what happened here," Jordan said. 

"And hopefully other people and other generations can [bring their] kids down here so they can have their own homes."

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.

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With files from Rose Murphy, CBC Radio's Information Morning Halifax