Putting flesh on the bones
Shunpiking Magazine
Black History & African Heritage Supplement
February/March, 2000, Volume 5, Number 32

BIRCHTOWN SITS peacefully in a small cove just beyond Shelburne on the South Shore. There is little to mark the settlement of the first Black Loyalists in 1783 except a few houses dotted along the back road and a small plaque marking their landing site. No Burger Kings or souvenir shops disturb the ghosts of the past here.

I am on my way to Shelburne to catch the Federal Minister of Rural Development who is flying in to make a funding announcement. It's a major event for the local Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Small in numbers, but determined, the Society was formed in 1991 to "discover, interpret, safeguard and promote the history of Black Loyalists." Since its creation, the Society has carried out several initiatives which have helped uncover missing pages in the saga of what has happened to the descendants of slaves.

Children playing on a crag near Birchtown. The town was settled by free Blacks, most of whom arrived with 2,000 other Loyalists in 1783. Not permitted to settle in nearby Shelburne, the free Blacks started their own community which, by 1784, was the largest of its kind in North America. Albert Lee, from Destination Nova Scotia (Nimbus Publishing)
To secure Birchtown for future development, the Society has already purchased the old Birchtown schoolhouse, a century-old church, and the burial grounds. Recent archeological digs have revealed stone cellars and artifacts dating back to the late 1700s. In 1996, a national monument was raised. As well, black heritage development consultant Dr. Sharon Clyke-Oliver, worked with the Society to design an ambitious plan for a $9-million interpretive tourism and community economic development complex.

Barely visible on a map, Birchtown is one of the most significant historical sites for African Nova Scotians. Black Loyalists arrived in Birchtown at the end of the American Revolution. During the War, the British offered freedom and land to slaves who ran away from their rebel masters' plantations in the southern United States. Following the British defeat in 1783, 3,500 Blacks who were loyal to the Crown came to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. With a population of 1,500, Birchtown for a short time became the largest settlement of Free Blacks outside of Africa.

Birchtown was no promised land, however. Blacks found themselves on the bottom of every list to receive land and rations. Research reveals that out of "bureaucratic incompetence and racial inequality," only 184 (out of 649) heads of families received the promised Crown land. Skilled Black tradesmen, seamstresses, masons and coopers worked for one-quarter the income of their white counterparts, resulting in the first race riot in North American history. For ten days in July of 1784, a mob of embittered, unemployed whites in Shelburne attacked people and destroyed twenty homes. Those driven out of town relocated to Birchtown.

When the British made ships available to take Blacks to Sierra Leone in West Africa in 1792, it's not surprising that 1,200 leapt at the opportunity to leave. The disheartened Black Loyalists who remained in Nova Scotia struggled on. Some stayed in Birchtown while others drifted away to other Black communities in Brindley Town (near Digby), Little Tracadie (Guysborough County), Preston (Halifax County), Annapolis Royal, Halifax and St. John, NB. Today, less than two hundred Blacks live in Shelburne County.

With the Cat ferry now in operation to Yarmouth, Birchtown has increasingly become a stop for bus tours of African Americans wanting to see where the Black Loyalists landed. Given the lack of infrastructure for tours, Lawrence Bruce, a retired teacher and Vice President of the Heritage Society, has often received calls at home to come and show the visitors around. These visits underscore the urgency of the Society's work: "It's important not so much because of the history of the Blacks," states Bruce, "But the lack of Black history. We want to enlighten people, and enlighten ourselves: If you don't know where you've been, then you aren't going to know where you are going."

In 1999, the Heritage Society created a Registry to help reconstruct the genealogical history of the Black Loyalists. Teena Paynter, project registrar, explains that the Registry is helping to break down isolation: "For example, I didn't know there was a black community in Shelburne and yet my family is from Greenville, Yarmouth County. And yet Greenville doesn't know about East Preston; East Preston doesn't know about Whitney Pier -- people are interested, but Black communities have been so segregated that they don't know about each other."

Another project sponsored by the NS Museum, "Remembering Black Loyalists/ Black Communities" is also uncovering lost history by researching the links between African Nova Scotians in Birchtown and Tracadie, and their ancestors who were slaves in the southern US.

Photo taken in front of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Shelburne, circa 1900. Photo from the collection of the Shelburne County Museum.
Researcher Carmelita Robertson explains that the project shares information from family records, land grants, deeds, wills, church records, photographs, cemeteries, and newspapers with the Birchtown project: "People always want to know where they come from. Without that foundation it's kind of hard to go anywhere, or have any tradition. It helps to put meat on the bones, on the skeleton of what we know." Robertson's personal life, along with that of colleague Ruth Whitehead, is the focus of the Gemini, award-winning documentary film Loyalties.

When she lived briefly in the US, Clyke-Oliver discovered first-hand people were anxious to learn about Black Loyalist history: "When people found out that I was from Nova Scotia they would say, 'How did you get there? I didn't know there were Blacks in Canada!' Black North American society is just dying for this kind of thing. Since the evolution of writings and research about slavery, we're so thirsty for knowledge. We know that there are families in the States with the very same names and they are probably related."

Back in Shelburne, Andy Mitchell, the federal minister who I've come to hear, speaks passionately to the small assembly about preserving rural culture. Lawrence Bruce graciously thanks the Minister and receives a cheque for $132,325, of which $82,000 comes from Fisheries Restructuring, and $50,000 from HRDC. The provincial government is contributing another $75,000.

*Representation based on unearthed foundations and contemporary descriptions.
Although many of the arrivals, disheartened by miserable land grants and marginal farming around Birchtown, emigrated to Sierra Leone in 1792, others stayed and built one-room houses like the one shown.
I know the Black Loyalist Heritage Society will work miracles with this $200,000 -- but, knowing they need $9 million, I can't help but feel disappointed at the amount the government has offered. I ask Dr. Clyke-Oliver why the government doesn't offer more. She sighs: "I don't understand it either, especially given the federal surplus. And, especially when you look at similar projects and the speed with which the big funding came to, say, the Titanic, and the $4.5 million to Pier 21."

Dr. Clyke-Oliver believes Nova Scotia could double its tourism revenue if Black Americans had something to come to in Birchtown. "I don't want to go to Des Moines, Iowa because there's nothing there for me. But Atlanta? Sure, I'd go there because of the Martin Luther King Centre." Clyke-Oliver hints that one of the reasons the government has been dragging its heels is they would prefer to see the project located near Halifax. She quips: "You hear them say, 'oh dear, Shelburne -- that's three hours from Halifax and well, you have such a small community there and how many people can you house and sleep in Shelburne.' I tell them it would be as inappropriate to locate the Birchtown Heritage Site to Halifax as it would be to put L'Evangeline's statue in Yarmouth!"

"From a Black perspective we are so used to disappointment. What can I say! The tears of disappointment flow again. Canada really has a long way to a go before it can really espouse diversity and multiculturalism."

*Janice Action is a Halifax writer and educator and a regular contributor to shunpiking.

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