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Matriarch of Africville dies at home

Believed in the goodness of people


HALIFAX (19 February 2003) - RUTH JOHNSON was about to say a prayer.

A crowd of people, from politicians to former Africville residents, gathered last July to designate the area as a national historic site.

But the woman who fought for years to keep memories of Africville alive couldn't help noticing the irony of the occasion.

"This is a happy event for some, and yet this is a sad event for me," said Mrs. Johnson, a former resident of the Halifax black settlement destroyed by city bulldozers in the 1960s.

"To think I've lost my birthplace for a park. But I hope God will forgive those for their mistakes and that he'll receive their souls in heaven."

It's this combination of tenacity and faith that those who knew her remembered Tuesday, a day after the community matriarch, in her early 80s, died at her home in Lower Sackville.

A founding member and former president of the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia, Mrs. Johnson was a woman of strength and compassion, said Henry Bishop, chief curator of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.

She was a "strong advocate for justice," who despite injustice in her own life "was also a strong believer in the goodness of people," Mr. Bishop said.

Her strength pushed her to dispel negative images about Africville, often portrayed as a dispensable slum by those who advocated its demolition to make way for urban development.

"She always wanted people to know about the people of Africville," said Irvine Carvery, president of Africville Genealogy Society, of which Mrs. Johnson was a member.

"She wanted people to know that the homes in Africville, whether they were the better homes in Africville or not, that the people inside were families and they held true to the beliefs of the church and that it was truly a community."

Mr. Carvery credited Mrs. Johnson with taking that message across Canada. She was instrumental, he said, in making possible an early-1990s cross-country Africville museum exhibit.

She donated objects from her home for the exhibit, prompting others to follow suit, and travelled to many of the museums to ensure they presented her community accurately.

Such dedication has been an inspiration to younger former Africville residents like Mr. Carvery, just 13 when the community was destroyed.

Many called her Dr. Ruth after she received a doctorate from Mount Saint Vincent University. But to Mr. Carvery, she's always been "Aunt Ruth," although they're not related.

"She was revered," he said, noting she spent much time talking to students and others about Africville. "We looked up to her, we looked for her guidance, we looked for her strength."

Mrs. Johnson also loved to sing and play piano or organ, and she was known for her artwork depicting life in Africville.

"But I think it was her laugh and her smile that really meant the most to me," Mr. Carvery said.

Her niece Geraldine Parker remembers her aunt's fine singing voice, faith and kindness. She volunteered for many charities and was active in her church.

"She was a kind, loving-hearted woman," she said. "She had her faith and strength in God."

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

*Lois Legge is a features writer with the Chronicle Herald
Copyright 2003 The Halifax Herald Limited


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