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The Glace Bay Universal Negro Improvement Association

Special to Black History & African Heritage Supplement

SYDNEY - THE Glace Bay Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) is a newly-formed organization in Cape Breton whose objective is to promote the heritage of African Nova Scotians, and acknowledge the role Blacks played in the growth and development of Glace Bay. The group is currently in the process of restoring the original UNIA Hall in Glace Bay. Though the UNIA may appear to be a new organization it actually originated close to a century ago and is historically linked to Black culture in industrial Cape Breton.

The UNIA was formed in Glace Bay in 1918. Albert Francis, who arrived from the Barbados in 1916 and worked in No.16 Colliery in New Waterford, formed the group in his backyard. The first charter of the association was granted in 1920 and with money raised by members over the years, a hall was erected in 1932.

The black community in Glace Bay basically came into existence as a result of the rapid expansion of coal mining at the turn of the twentieth century. There were six mines working in the Glace Bay area at the time and the Dominion Coal Company was looking for cheap labour to work in the pits. Many poor, unskilled and uneducated Black workers were recruited from the West Indies to work in the Glace Bay coal mines. Lacking a place to live, many were originally housed in the UNIA hall. The small, paint-peeling building that remains on the site today now houses the rejuvenated UNIA, and is the only surviving UNIA hall in Nova Scotia. Theresa Smith, president of the newly formed Glace Bay UNIA says the historical significance of this old building is monumental.

In 1938 Marcus Garvey, the founder of the original Universal Negro Improvement Association, spoke at this hall and others in Sydney and New Waterford at the invitation of local members of the various chapters of the UNIA. Garvey was born in 1887, the son of well-educated parents, but still grew up poor in Jamaica because of discrimination against Blacks. In 1916 he decided to dedicate his life to uplifting Blacks throughout North America and beyond through word and print. He founded hundreds of UNIA associations and had come to Canada in 1938 to attend a North American UNIA conference in Toronto. To this day Garvey is recognized as the leader of one of the largest mass movements of Black people in American history. His legacy has stood the test of time.

Recently Multicultural Trails of Nova Scotia have included the UNIA Hall on its website

("http://www.multiculturaltrails.ca/index.html") to expose visitors to understanding events and people that shaped Nova Scotiaís history. The Multicultural Trails website highlights places of ethno-cultural and historic interest that are culturally significant but may have been undiscovered or over-shadowed until now, such as the UNIA hall in Glace Bay.

Today, Theresa Smith and some thirty other members of the local UNIA are doing their best to uphold the memory of the people who sustained their Black community over the decades, by raising funds to preserve the hall that was built by the first Black settlers in Glace Bay back in 1932. The exterior and interior needs work and the furnace needs repair. Smith hopes to enlist the support of her community and elsewhere to make this happen. Through educational, cultural and recreational means the Glace Bay UNIA aims to promote African Nova Scotian culture in the same hall visited by Marcus Garvey some seventy years ago.

*Paul MacDougall is a freelance writer, teaches at the University College of Cape Breton and a contributor to Shunpiking Magazine and the Black History Supplements. Portions of this article originally appeared in the Feb 2005 issue of the Cape Bretoner Magazine.

Scenes from the opening of the U.N.I.A. Cultural Museum, Glace Bay

21 July 2006

Guests at opening

Theresa Brewster, Chair of the Universal Negro Improvement Ass'n (UNIA) Glace Bay

Inspirational Singers

Lindsay MacDonald, Community Youth Representative

Photos courtesy African Nova Scotian Affairs

For further reading
Paul MacDougall, Shunpiking Magazine, Black History & African Heritage Supplement, February/March, 2000, Volume 5, Number 32

Paul MacDougall, Shunpiking Magazine, Black History & African Heritage Supplement, No. 38

Paul MacDougall, Shunpiking Magazine, Black History & African Heritage Supplement, Vol. 4 No. 24

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