Nova Scotia·Video

Tallahassee's days may be ending as Halifax re-examines its Confederate links

On a dark and moonless night during the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate ship Tallahassee was in trouble and sought safe harbour in Halifax. A century and a half later, the Tallahassee is navigating difficult waters once again.

Legendary navigational feat on Eastern Passage sparks modern debate about 'who's worthy of heroization'

How a Confederate ship is once again navigating difficult waters a century and a half later in Halifax

2 years ago
Duration 4:56
The true origin story of Confederate ship Tallahassee and the festival in Eastern Passage that bears its name, as told by the great-great-great grandson of the man who saved it from being sunk just outside Halifax harbour.  

A school and a festival in the Halifax Regional Municipality are considering changing names that link them to a Confederate ship that famously found safe harbour in the city during the U.S. Civil War.

The iron-sided steamer Tallahassee launched a raid against Union ships in the summer of 1864 and wrecked about 29 vessels before breaking its mast and running out of coal. In August, it sailed into Halifax harbour, which in the years before Canadian Confederation was a neutral British port. 

Greg Marquis is a professor of Canadian history at the University of New Brunswick and the author of In Armageddon's Shadow: The Civil War and Canada's Maritime Provinces. In his book, he writes that the Halifax Volunteer Band sailed out to play Dixie and Bonnie Blue Flag for the Tallahassee's 120-man crew.

The Tallahassee remains the biggest ship to ever navigate the Eastern Passage. (U.S. National Park Service)

On shore, the Halifax Journal urged its readers to remember "the treatment of defenceless Southern women and children by Yankee ruffians" while Halifax's Sun newspaper dismissed the Confederates as "thieves, felons and freebooters."

Many Maritimers fought for the North

Marquis said his research found Halifax's elite citizens tended to support the South, while many others supported the North. "The people who fought for the Union far outnumbered anyone who fought for the Confederacy," Marquis told CBC News. 

For example, Black Nova Scotian Ben Jackson left his village, Lockhartville, N.S., to fight for the North

Maritime sympathy for the Southern cause was so well-known that just a few weeks before the Tallahassee arrived, a Union border guard in Maine shot and killed a young New Brunswick mill worker who walked too close to the border. The guard feared he was a Southern sympathizer about to raid the North. 

After arriving in Halifax, the Tallahassee refueled, got a new mast and prepared to return to the Confederacy. But rumour was Union ships lurked at the harbour mouth, waiting to sink the Tallahassee once it left port. They decided to navigate the small, dangerous Eastern Passage.

Jock Flemming piloted the Tallahassee down the Eastern Passage in the middle of the night. (Submitted by Joe Flemming)

They hired local pilot Jock Flemming to take on the dangerous feat and left in the middle of the night to avoid detection. 

"Jock Flemming was known to be an incredible harbour pilot and knew these waters as good or better than anybody that was here, including the fish," said Joe Flemming, Jock's great-great-great grandson. 

"They describe him as being six feet tall and a heavier build, a bit of a stoop and a steep chest and skin like a turtle's back. You can picture him being weathered from the sun and the wind and the salt water and being quite a hardy mariner."

Jock Flemming guided the big ship down the passage, carefully using the twin-screw controls to steer the Tallahassee through the narrow and shallow passage to safety. 

Jock Flemming came from a long line of mariners. His legendary piloting of the Tallahassee earned him a measure of fame. His death in 1908 was reported in the New York Times. (Submitted by Joe Flemming)

When the Tallahassee sailed into Halifax, more than 3.5 million Black people were held in bondage in the U.S. 

Flying Confederate flag in Halifax

After losing the war, John Taylor Wood, the Tallahassee's captain, returned to Halifax. He started a prosperous business with another ex-Confederate.

"They flew the Confederate flag on the waterfront," Marquis said. 

Halifax has a Tallahassee school, Tallahassee Recreation Centre, and the annual Tallahassee Days Pirate Festival, held this weekend. 

The Tallahassee school and rec centre share a building in Eastern Passage. (CBC)

Charmaine Nelson is a scholar of slavery in Canada and will move to Nova Scotia this fall to found the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD.

"If I was a parent, I wouldn't send my kids to a school called the Tallahassee. Absolutely not, because as a Black woman, I understand it was my ancestors — there's no escaping it — who were enslaved people if you go back a certain number of generations," she said.

"So why would I want to be in a school where the school board and the teachers and the community feel that's an OK name in 2020?"

'In Canada, it's slavery 101'

Nelson said supporting the South meant supporting slavery. 

"I'm someone who really understands the history of slavery. I study it, so I know how abhorrent it was. It was a 400-year genocide," she said. "Once you know what slavery was, it's very hard to justify it in any sense."

Nelson gives lectures on slavery across the U.S., Canada and Europe. She said Americans bring a basic knowledge and ask her questions that push her research forward.

"In Canada, it's slavery 101. That's where we are. I'm dealing with audiences often who have never heard that we had slavery, let alone that it was 200 years," she said.

"We're dealing with a system of what was called chattel slavery, meaning that the status of enslavement reduced you to movable personal property under the law," said Nelson. "No different than the desk we're sitting at or the chairs we're sitting on. You were not considered a human being."

Charmaine Nelson says many Canadians know nothing about their country's history of slavery. (Submitted by Charles Michael)

Canadian slavery ensured that the children of enslaved women became the property of the slave master. Nelson said slave owners knew this and often raped women held as slaves so the children — biologically their own — could become property. 

Canadian slave owners would also threaten to break up families and sell them to different masters.

Choosing our heroes

Nelson has studied evidence of slavery in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador. The records for the West are sparser, but she suspects it happened there too. 

"This conversation about the Tallahassee is so timely because I think we are thinking about, 'Who do we honour in our society? Who's worthy of heroization?'" she said. "To put the name of something or a person on a school, on a rec centre, on a festival — we generally don't do that with people that we despise or histories that we despise." 

Tallahassee Community School will talk about renaming this fall. Currently, it uses the name and an image of the Confederate ship on its website, above a poster urging parents to talk to their children about racism. (Halifax Regional Centre for Education)

When CBC spoke to the organizers of the Tallahassee Days Pirate Festival, they said they plan to change the name to Fisherman's Cove Pirate Festival. 

The Tallahassee Community School said a community member has spoken against the name and they will put it "on the agenda" for the school advisory council next month. 

Joe Flemming said if his ancestor, who sailed the ship through the Eastern Passage, were alive today, his family would sit down with him for a long talk about change. 

"I like to think that like everyone else, the more you know the better you do," he said. "I suspect now if he was here he would still have an opinion of some sort, he would still put his professionalism first, but that he would grow and learn like the rest of us."

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.