Walking Black through Halifax: On the sunnier side of the street
THEY CAME as seamen aboard British ships in 1781, from West Africa via Jamaica in 1796 and as escaped slaves from the American south. They were black and they settled in Nova Scotia. On a damp, cold night late in 1968 I sat in a Halifax hotel room with a telephone trying to find someone who could help me understand what it was like to be one of their descendants. Buddy Daye knew, everybody said. Buddy Daye, sailor turned prize fighter turned freedom fighter, who grew up in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, and couldn't convince white kids he didn't have a tail, who moved to Halifax and couldn't get a haircut, who walked the streets telling little children they could be black and beautiful, black and proud, but knew that sooner or later they and his own nine children would learn that for some people, some Canadians, they would always be niggers. Buddy knew kids who shared their beds with rats, mothers and fathers who lived without hope. He showed me his world in 1968 and he showed me again a few weeks ago.
White man: You areas good as me.
Black man: No, no. You are as good as me. (Overheard in Halifax)
Except for a soaring gull and two little girls hopscotching home from Sunday school, Gottingen Street is deserted now: the Saturday night rhinestone cowboys are away recharging, the country guitars over at the Misty Moon lie silent and the street rests as the Halifax cabbie takes a left toward the harbor and pulls up in front of the Baptist church.
"That's a colored church," he says.
"The sign says everybody's welcome."
You do and you're glad. There is more life here - all Afro, Sunday best and smiling on a sunny spring day. The service hasn't started yet but they are already warming up inside with some gospel singing. Happy, hand-clapping music that makes you feel good as far as the sidewalk.
"Good morning, Deacon Jones."
"Good morning to you, Brother Leroy."
"Mornin', Reverend Mack."
"Good morning, Buddy Daye."
Someone hands over a copy of the Baptist Standard Hymnal - With Responsive Readings, smiles and whispers "number 29, Brother."
Number 29 is "Oh, For a Thousand Tongues" and Buddy Daye is one pew back belting it out like the prize fighter he used to be. Slipping and sliding in and out of the big gospel beat like a wailing Dixieland trombone. With a big smile on his face.
The smile is new. The last time Buddy Daye guided you through the streets of black Halifax was in 1968. It wasn't a very happy walk. No fun walking where people live without hope. No smiles or singing then. Just tears, despair, discrimination and rats.
But this time Buddy says things are better. This time, he says, we're walking on the sunny side of the street. This time there is a sunny side of the street in Halifax. Even if you are black.
Heather Chandler was almost 17 in 1968 and the Black Panthers were in town telling everybody it was time to stop singing and start swinging, telling Heather and her friends black was beautiful. She believed it then, believes it more at 23.
Over some of her mother's apple pie she says she has a good job in an office now, has pursued her interest in acting with amateur theatre groups and performed in a professional production at the Neptune Theatre. Yes, blacks feel more comfortable about their color and their place in Nova Scotia today.
"We're more visible," she says. "in banks, shops, even Eaton's and Simpsons. Housing is better and black kids are staying in school longer."
"We've learned to stand up for what we are," says her mother, Edith, a tall elegant women in a long dress who sells her pies to neighbors and friends to help pay the bills. "It used to be they'd just point to the scrub mop and duster when we went looking for office jobs. No matter how much schooling we had."
But those were the bad old days. Everybody agrees today's slice of the pie is more generous, fairer. There is a nice feeling of progress and brotherhood in the Chandlers' big living room.
But then Heather remembers she was stoned by some teenage boys since she saw you last.
Buddy Daye winces.
"You shouldn't even mention that," her mother scolds, gently. "That was ages ago. Those poor boys never even saw a black person before."
"But it happened," says Heather. "I can't ever forget it happened."
"In New Waterford, Nova Scotia, in 1972. I was with a theatre group. I don't want to believe it happened but it did and it won't ever go away."
"What did you do?"
"I ran. At first they just started yelling 'get lost, nigger' but then the stones started to fly around my ears and I figured it was time to move on. After that I stayed in the van."
The nice feeling has paled but Heather hasn't quite finished...
"There are still so many things..."
"Like sitting down beside the white lady on the bus the other day and feeling her whole body instantly move away from me. Knowing she just couldn't stand being close because I'm black."
"What did you do?"
"I snuggled up real close," she says. "I found all sorts of reasons to look out the window so she could get a real good look and feel of me."
"That's just terrible," says her mother, displeased by her daughter's aggressiveness. "Remember, Reverend Martin Luther King fought for all races. Not just blacks but poor whites, too."
"She wasn't poor. She had blue hair," says Heather.
"That doesn't matter."
But it matters to her daughter who laughs about it now with everything but her eyes. Just like it matters when white clerks follow her around department stores convinced she is going to steal something. Their only evidence - her, black skin.
"I fondle everything in sight," she says. "Just to keep them on their toes."
But her mother doesn't approve of that either: "Things don't change overnight."
Which is why her daughter still takes calls at the office from people with properties for rent and they add - just before saying goodbye - "Oh yes, please don't send over any blacks..."
This time Edith Chandler doesn't argue and for a very long moment there isn't a lot of talking in the room.
Buddy Daye checks his watch and says maybe it's time to go.
Buddy really wants you to see the progress. This is building time for Nova Scotia blacks, he says, and builders have to think positive. He points to the black taxi driver. No black cabbies last time you were here. He tells you about the days in the late 1960s when the Panthers had the young people of Halifax thinking their city was as bad as Detroit.
"it was fine to think black was beautiful," he says. "We needed some of that. But shooting white people was another story. One of our biggest jobs was disarming our young people -- mentally and physically."
He tells you about the Black United Front which has helped Nova Scotia's 38,000 blacks mesh together into one cohesive, self-helping group. And his own story: Last time you were here he was a laundry administrator. Now he is supervisor of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. The first black man to be appointed to any office at Province House, in charge of pages and messengers - male, female, black and white. On first name basis with the legislators.
"It used to be our people wouldn't even dream of coming into this building," he says, looking down at a session of the legislature from the public gallery just outside his office. "Now not a day goes by without some blacks dropping down for a visit."
"Doesn't your job make it a bit tricky for you to be critical of government where your people are concerned?"
"When he hired me, Premier Regan asked that all I be was honest. When I can't be honest about the needs of my people I won't work here any more."
We were heading down Gottingen Street again. "Stop the car," he shouts. "That's Cal Lawrence, one of our first black policemen."
Calvin Lawrence, 26, is also Canada's amateur heavyweight boxing champion and is all Adidas and muscle on his way home from his daily workout at the gym. He says he's working the midnight shift tonight. Buddy leads us into a coffee shop.
"I've been telling him things are better, Cal."
"Lots more opportunity," says the policeman. "Five blacks on the Halifax force today and another two in the wings. Three with the RCMP."
But he isn't sure deep down that attitudes have changed that much. "You don't get the extremes today. Blacks are saying 'Let's go out and break some white windows' and the whites know it isn't too cool any more to be noisily antiblack. But I still get called nigger about twice a week. And some blacks call me an Uncle Tom for enforcing what they thinks the white man's law.
"Sometimes a black will look at me and say 'You won't arrest me, we're friends.' Remember I'm not only black, I grew up around here."
"What do you say to those friends?"
"I tell them if they're my friends they won't put me on the spot by doing something illegal. If they do, I arrest them. I don't deal with colors on the job - just names."
The horn toots us to a stop near the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.
Eldridge Brindley, a secretary-treasurer of the Black United Front, is downtown to pick up some shirts. Buddy invites us into his car for a chat.
"More hope around here today wouldn't you say, El?'"
"Lots more," says Brindley. "And the biggest thing we're learning is how to help ourselves."
Today when black brothers or sisters don't get the job they want to know why. And if they don't get a satisfactory answer the Black United Front moves in and asks why. If it's because the man or woman isn't qualified they find out what can be done to upgrade the person's qualifications. If they feel racism is the problem they call in the province's Human Rights Commission.
"And if there are no blacks working in the store they can't claim it's because they haven't had any black applications," says Buddy. "We know what our people are up to, today."
"And they can't be shuffled off the way they used to," says Eldridge Brindley. But they don't yell racism every time something goes wrong.
"We're learning not to use racism as a crutch," says Buddy's friend. "Sure, racism made it harder to get ahead. But it made it easier to give up, too. Some people found it easier to blame racism and whites than to try to solve their problems.
"When we found out too many of our children were failing in school we looked into it and discovered it was because they couldn't read properly. But then we looked a little deeper and found out our low-income white brothers were failing too. They couldn't read well enough either. The problem was more one of poverty and the times than of race."
One of the most positive things to come out of recent Nova civil rights efforts, both men agreed, was the way blacks were learning how to be home-owners.
"Is that so important?"
"It sure is," says- Brindley. „Why shouldn't our people build up some equity same as the whites? But it's more than equity. Home ownership gives you a sense of pride and motivation, two things our people never had before."
It's a silly question but you ask it anyway: "Why not?"
"Because blacks could never get mortgage money before - no matter how hard they worked."
"No matter how many floors they scrubbed," says Buddy Daye.
Because they couldn't get money for homes they bought big, fancy cars and wild clothes.
"You wouldn't let him buy a home but by God you were going to see him coming down the street," says Brindley. "Now we know there is always a way to find money for a good cause. Our white brothers taught us that."
Today if one of the brothers or sisters wants money for a home or business the Black United Front helps him find it. Helps him make his case.
Buddy tells me many blacks live in the country and are land-rich but dollar-poor. "The whites put them out there hoping they'd freeze, starve or go away. But they didn't. Some of them sold their land for peanuts because they couldn't develop it - and then watched white people make the bundle selling lots and homes. Now we are finding ways to build our own homes. Why not black contractors?"
Brindley says it's a case of blacks learning how to make the system serve them. Blacks learning to fight with words instead of brawn.
"I was at a meeting the other night, Buddy, and blacks were standing up and saying what they wanted of the school their kids were at. Imagine blacks demanding the things they wanted and should have. It did the heart good to see it."
The Misty Moon is a big, bustling, neighborhood beer joint on Gottingen Street. Country music and dancing for blacks and whites, with a good feeling early on a Friday night.
"Sit here," says Buddy. "I'll round up some people."
You order some beer and look around. If there is racial tension in here you can't see it. Everybody seems to know everybody - black or white. The last time Buddy took you into a bar he told you to stay close to him -- or get your eyes knocked out.
He comes back with Clark Cromwell, 33, a brewery worker and Ron Colley, 30, who used to be a chef but quit because he could make more money working as a doorman here at Misty Moon.
Buddy tells them why you are here. Ron seems understanding, believes things are looking up. But Clark is unimpressed, though friendly.
"I am a militant," he says. "And I'm angry"
Buddy says that at one time Clark was such a hell-raiser for the cause of civil rights that it was thought there would never be peace in Halifax as long as he was in town. Buddy says it with admiration.
"I am also prejudiced," says Clark, looking you straight in the eye.
"That's too bad."
"Things are getting better," says Ron Colley, trying to ease the sudden tension.
"The. young people aren't nearly as discouraged as we used to be."
"Any damn fool can see that," says Clark. "But they aren't moving fast enough for me. It's already 100 years too late."
"'is that why you are prejudiced?"
"You saying prejudice is stupid and wrong?"
"I'm thinking it."
"Well you go out there and convince all those other whites and when you do you come back and convince me."
Buddy is looking uncomfortable again. This isn't quite as positive as he'd planned.
"What have they done to you," you ask Clark Cromwell. "You said you had a good job."
"I have the job because I'm the token black. And I don't like being the token black. Every time they bring visitors in, the boss comes over sweet as hell and asks me to tell them how it all works. Why me? Why not the white guy who's been there a lot longer?"
"Maybe the boss figures you'll explain it better."
"Like hell - he's just showing off the token black..."
Buddy winces again.
"...and I'm tired being a token. Tired having our guys being forced to be superstars. I don't want to have to be no goddam superstar. I don't want to have to be the fastest or the strongest or the best to make the team. All I want is a chance to be me - just another one of the players. Just like you. Can you understand that?"
You listen to the country music and try to think of something bright to say but all you think of is something another black man told you earlier tonight:
"Being black isn't a bad thing in our minds any more But it still is in yours"
"I didn't know you people liked country music," you say,
"We don't all like anything," says Clark, smiling. "Any more than you do."
You decide to leave it at that.
About 75 families live in Cherrybrook, Nova Scotia, and they are all black. Once, not so long ago, a white family moved in but it didn't work out. They weren't accepted in the neighborhood. Their kids kept getting beat up and the blacks finally drove them out.
"it was a mistake for them to try," Clyde A. Bishop is telling me as we sit in his Cherrybrook home. "Blacks know too much about discrimination. When a black man discriminates he does it with a great deal of skill. I can really make a man feel bad if I want to:"
He says it quietly and it is easy to believe he doesn't do it very often.
Clyde Bishop, 50, is a chef in a hospital and a vice-president of the Black United Front. He came to Canada at 19 from Barbados to study for the ministry. He went to sea instead and there met Buddy Daye.
"There's a wedding over at Cherrybrook tonight," Buddy had said earlier.
"You'll be able to meet some people."
The Bishop home was in a tizzy when we arrived, "Make yourselves at home," Clyde had said. "! have to shower and shave"
Several women, obviously dressed for a -wedding, were busy in the kitchen. Aretha Franklin was busy on the sound system. And then you spot the wedding cake on the dining-room table...
"who's getting married, Bud?"
"Clyde's little girl, Sally. Known her all her life."
"Right here. In about 15 minutes. Reverend Skeir, should be here any minute now."
"You didn't tell me."
"You wouldn't have come, dressed formal. I knew Clyde wouldn't mind(?) can talk later."
The minister and some ********* arrive. Somebody says the bride ,*** and that's the groom in the white suit. Clyde comes out in his blue suit and laughs at the only white face in the small crowd: "Man, you're the minority group here tonight."
The bride appears from one of the bedrooms and the reverend invites everybody's attention to the centre of the living room. Somebody turns off Aretha and after just a few minutes Sally Bishop is Mrs. Michael Rogers. In his toast to the groom Clyde notes he hasn't known the young man long but feels he is still able to welcome him into the family with confidence: "He helped me fix the water pipes today and fixed the bathroom without being asked. I believe it speaks well for their future."
Everybody laughs, Aretha is turned beck up and the women get out the potato salad and cold cuts,
"Now we can talk," says the father.
He tells you how black kids don't stand on street corners any more looking for trouble to get into. How the boys don't all move away to Toronto.
"The money isn't as good here but at least it's home and at last our young people have blacks they can look up to. We've got black teachers now. Qualified black teachers. Nurses, even a few doctors and lawyers. Suddenly the big news isn't racism but that Velma is working in the store."
But he also tells me about the little jet-black girl down the street who still feels uneasy beside her lighter skinned sisters. "I tell her she's my beautiful little C!eopatra," says Clyde Bishop. "We're building pride. Black Power used to be just words. Now our people are finding out words can have meaning."
"You know what I saw the other day, Buddy? A blind black man hauling boards and turning stones, helping to build his own home. Can you imagine that kind of progress? That kind of pride?"
"I can now," says Buddy.
We watch Clyde's sons, daughters and friends moving with the soul music.
"What is it they want most of all?" you ask,
"Just a simple working relationship with the rest of society," says Clyde Bishop of his children. "But excuse me, I would like a dance with the bride."
On the way out you ask where the groom is from.
Somebody says Fort Worth, Texas, "He never had it so good," says Buddy Daye.
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