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THE CITY's BULLDOZER came for the church before dawn. Seaview Baptist Church (pictured, above), where Deacon Ralph Jones had decried from his pulpit: "If ever there was ever a time to stand by your guard, the time is now! This is testin' time!" The church was the heart and soul of Africville, where the community found its spiritual and social focus. It had been the voice of the community, but by the time the residents of Africville awoke one late summer morning in 1967, it was raised to the ground.

The "relocations"' and home demolitions had been happening since 1964, but the loss of the church snapped the noose taut around the neck of the community. By the time the City of Halifax destroyed the last house of Africville in 1970, the home of Aaron "Pa" Carvery, it was simply a matter of cutting down the body.

* * * *


THE doors of the Halifax county council meeting swing open the night of 27 October 1977, and a stream of defiant black faces flows stoically into the public gallery above the councillors, until the gallery is filled to the brim. Filled with faces that remember Africville and are determined not to let it happen to their community. They are the residents of North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook, Lake Loon and Lake Major. United as one voice, they are here to let the powers-that-be know that they will not have their land taken from them. These people are moving for no man or God.

* * * *


THE Seaview African United Baptist Church was as old as Africville itself. Built near the shores of the Bedford Basin in the late 1840s, the church was the focal point of Africville's existence. The church gave guidance to its parishioners and helped shelter Africvillers from the hostility and racism that many blacks experienced in greater, mostly white, Halifax.

Residents (all but a handful of whom were Black) paid taxes to the city; yet had no paved roads, running water, sewerage or garbage services, and only minimal police and fire protection - things that taxes normally pay for. While railway tracks ran through the middle of the community, and an open-air dump was installed beside it, the City deemed water pipes too expensive to be feasible. Despite this, Africville persisted and grew. Residents persistently petitioned the city council in protest, demanding civic services.

Two factors from outside the community began to threaten it in the late 1940s and 1950s: the expansion of the city of Halifax and the trend of 'Urban Renewal' Halifax was a growing port city, a new cheap labour force was flowing into the metropolis from marginalized, rural Nova Scotia, and the strategically-located waterside space that Africvillers called home was in the way of the "natural' progression of industry north, along the harbour front. A report from the city manager to city council in mid-1954 recommended shifting Africville residents to city-owned property and acquiring the land for industrial purposes.

The much more public discussion in Halifax was that something had to be done about the living conditions in Africville. From outside, Africville was seen as a slum, where people and their children lived in squalor and salvaged garbage from the dump to survive. The Stephenson report in 1957 documented the deplorable conditions of Africville, and called for better housing, improved municipal services, more integration, and a better standard of living for residents. Many people in Halifax were embarrassed by what they saw as a scar' on the face of the City. The National Housing Act brought a trend of urban renewal an "public housing" across the country allegedly meant to improve and revitalize city slums. Something had to be done about Africville.

There were only two options: improve the living conditions in Africville, or demolish the community and relocate its residents. On this basis, the main lines of public opinion were formed.

Dalhousie University published a study in 1959 showing that 65 per cent of Africvillers did not want to be relocated, and that of the minority that supported relocation, 25 per cent said the only reason they wanted to leave was for access to better education for their children.

Photo by Bob Brooks, NS Archives
[Sometimes, some people need to be shown that certain things are not in their own best interests or in the interests of their children - Halifax Mayor John Edward Lloyd]

"Africville, obviously, must be redeveloped," said Halifax Mayor John Edward Lloyd in an interview in 1962. "Sometimes, some people need to be shown that certain things are not in their own best interests or in the interests of their children - Should there be violations of minimum [housing] standards, then you have no alternative but to enforce the law and this is universal for everyone."

A common opinion promoted by the ruling circles was that conditions in which Africvillers lived were of their own creation. and they didn't know any better. The physical separation of the Black community from the rest of Halifax was also argued to be a major cause of the substandard living conditions in Africville. In the early 1960s city council approved a plan intended to end segregation and "integrate" Africvillers into "white society": Demolish Africville and relocate its residents.

Who decides?

THERE was little meaningful consultation with those who would be most affected by the relocation: the residents of Africville. The only voice the community had, the church, put up little more than a token resistance to the City's plans. The church had always been the centre of the community, but it had not encouraged its parishioners to resist acts of prejudice and oppression. It had focused instead on insulating the community from the outside world, and did not evolve and renew its doctrine to match the changing world outside of Africville. Church leaders simply did not know what to do when the City came with its bulldozers, so residents were left to fend for themselves.

The first house was toppled in 1964. Some residents left without a fight, and took whatever compensation the City offered them. Those who valiantly chose to try and fight the city faced an uphill battle. Only 14 of the 80 families that lived in Africville could actually prove, based on arbitrary standards set by the city, that they had legal title to the land they lived on. Often land had passed from generation to generation without paperwork because the City had not involved itself in the infrastructure of Africville. So when the City asked families to show proof of ownership for the land they lived on, the land they paid taxes on, most Africvillers could not provide it. According to Denise Allen of the Africville Genealogy Society, the proof of other families, such as hers, was simply discounted. This forced many to accept whatever the city offered them for their homes; the average compensation was $500, a pittance.

Those who still refused to leave had little resources to fight back against the city. There were no lawyers who lived in Africville, no money to pay for one and, most importantly, no political organization. People were effectively disenfranchised and disempowered. City social workers repeatedly visited homes to convince residents that they should leave. Even those who were adamant about staying lost heart when they saw the houses of their neighbours around them being plowed into the ground. Africville died slowly but steadily. In 1967 the church was destroyed and the guts were ripped out of the community. Three years later, Aaron "Pa" Carvery was the last resident to leave, with the bulldozer rumbling towards his house as he walked away.

* * * *


THE first Black settlers to arrive in the Preston area were refugees from the war of 1812 although Jamaican Maroons had worked as "servants" on British Governor Sir John Wentworth's summer home in Preston, 1796-1800, and settled there. The British had promised freedom and land to any slaves who betrayed their American owners, and 1,600 escaping slaves came to Nova Scotia with those promises in mind. The Preston area, located about 12 km northeast of modern-day Dartmouth, had already been settled and later abandoned by White settler farmers because the land was too rocky and infertile to make a living from. Despite this, the British colonial government sent 600 Black refugees to live and farm in the area.

Refugees were placed on plots of land from eight to ten acres in size. Even the British colonial government at the time admitted it was impossible to support a family on any less than 100 acres. To survive, it was common for the Black settlers to seek out menial labour jobs in Halifax or on other nearby farms. The feeling among many of the refugees was that they had been sent to North Preston to die. Left mostly to its own devices on the fringes of the British colonial society and economy, the community struggled against their marginalization, persevered, and grew. [1]

As early as 1956 the City of Dartmouth recognized that there was going to be a conflict with the people of the Preston over land use. A city study identified Lake Major as an important source of water for the growing City of Dartmouth. The study recommended restricting building permits in and around the Lake Major watershed area to protect it from pollution. The watershed area included much of the communities of North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook, Lake Major and Lake Loon. Halifax county council then passed a by-law to prohibit new construction on watershed lands, though it was not enforced until 1977.

Residents of the Preston area had long felt neglected by the government. Despite having a seat on county council since the late 1800s, there was no public transport, limited recreational facilities, low police and fire protection, and few social services in the area. In the years after the 1956 study, residents also became aware that the city was buying up land in the watershed area.

In 1977 the City of Dartmouth refused to give Donald Smith of East Preston a building permit for his property. He then went to Arnold Johnston, a retired county councillor for North Preston, and together they learned that the City was no longer issuing permits to build in the Dartmouth Watershed area. Having seen what happened in Africville in the previous decade, the communities recognized the threat the city posed and immediately they mobilized. Members of the communities formed a Joint Action Committee and it began to lobby the local government.

They caused a turning point in government-community relations when they filled a county council meeting on 27 October 1977. In the face of community solidarity, council repealed the by-law against building in the watershed areas, and the two sides began to recognize the needs of the other. The communities understood that the City of Dartmouth had to ensure it had a clean water supply to thrive and grow. At the same time, the City of Dartmouth recognized the right of the Preston communities to develop and prosper in their ancestral home.

The provincial minister of municipal affairs commissioned a study to see how the situation could be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. This was the Ross Report. It looked at the needs of the community and the city, and tried to find a solution that would satisfy both sides.

The end result was the Lake Major Community Development and Watershed Management Plan. This created a 200-ft buffer zone around Lake Major and Long Lake in which no new construction could take place. The residents had to give up recreation access to the lakes for swimming and fishing, as well as give up some land around the lakes. What they gained was a Municipal Development Plan, which included the installation of running water pipes and sewerage pipes to replace their wells and septic tank systems. It also gave them a blueprint for future community growth. The City got control of its water supply, and accepted the community's right to grow and thrive in and around the lakes.

* * * *


"I REMEMBER the church going down," says Clarence Carvery, his composure struggling to hold back his resentment. "I saw the city trucks going in and I remember saying to him - You can't tear the church down, the people ain't gone yet." Imitating the city worker who was about to destroy his church, he sits up straight, stone-faced and shakes his head, "Yes - it's gotta come down."

It is 1989; nearly twenty years after the City tore down the last home in Africville. Some of those former Africvillers are gathered at Mount Saint Vincent University, along with policy and decision-makers for the city who were around at the time. They are joined here by others concerned with uncovering what really happened to Africville, and why.

"If the Africville people were not adequately involved in the process by which their lives were determined," says Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, "it's quite clear because they didn't have an organization that had the clout and could exert the pressure on their behalf."

"We were under the impression then, that if they say move, you go, they say come, you come," says ex-Africviller Laura Howe from the podium. "Then, you'd just go along with it."

Terry Dixon also speaks about the living conditions of Africville homes - the ones that the city would not supply running water or sewerage to. "Maybe they weren't up to standard for the people who set the standards," he pauses, composes, "But to us, they were homes, no matter what the houses looked like."

When the City bulldozers demolished Africville, they crushed more than just buildings. The roots of the Africville community were generations old. There had been open green spaces where children could run and play. The land gave families security because it was property they owned, and could pass on to their children. When the city leveled Africville, it took a community of home owners - most of whom worked and paid taxes - and put them in public housing where they had to pay rent; many ended up on welfare. The city turned a community that was struggling but surviving, into dependants of government handouts. The scattered residents could not build the community again elsewhere because their greatest financial asset, their land and their homes, had been turned over to the City for a pittance of compensation.

Upon relocation, the majority of Africvillers had their belongings placed in city garbage trucks - the same trucks that had never come to pick up the their garbage - and were moved into public housing units in Uniacke Square and Mulgrave Park. Government promises of job training and employment assistance failed to materialize in any meaningful form.

"You can take away my property," says Richard Jones in front of the crowd, struggling to keep his words together as a tear trickles down the lines on his dark face. "But you can't take away the spirit. It is something that will live on. We have a responsibility, to both ourselves and our kids, to keep the memory alive - and make sure, to the extent that we can, that something like this never happens again. Never."

* * * *


TODAY, the railway tracks that used to cut through Africville are all that remains. The site is now Seaview Park, accessible by a smooth, two-lane asphalt road. The City mows the lawn, plants the trees and makes sure the park is well kept. Instead of thriving Black neighbourhood, there is an open green field. In the middle is a small sun-dial, a memorial to the lost community. This is the only sign that there was once more than just a park here on the shores of the Bedford Basin.

Beside the park is the new shipping container pier, the Fairview Terminal, built after Africville was gone, and operated by an American multinational corporation (Ceres Corp), and looming in the sky above the park is the Alexander Mackay Bridge to the Burnside Industrial Park in Dartmouth, also built once the community was removed.

Cross the bridge and drive twenty minutes and you will be in Cherry Brook at the office of the Watershed Association Development Enterprise (WADE). The group was formed out of the Joint Action Committee that represented the Preston area communities in their land-use conflict with the City of Dartmouth. These days WADE helps people get jobs and develop businesses. It helps to build the infrastructure of the community and tries to ensure its continued growth in the years to come.

Directly across the street from WADE is the Nova Scotia Black Cultural Centre, which was opened on 17 September 1983. One of the centre's responsibilities is to keep the memory of Africville alive. As the next generation grows up in the Prestons, the centre is here to teach them about the past, and make sure that something like Africville does not happen again. Ever.

*This article was written by Spencer Osberg, then a student in the school of Journalism at the University of Kings College, while interning with Shunpiking Magazine in December 2003 - January 2004.

Endnote by the editor

1 The marginalization of the immigrants of African origin was not something based on colour but was a characteristic British colonial political-economic policy. The Irish navvies (canal labourers) brought to build the Shubenacadie Canal from Dartmouth west across the province between 1826 and 1831, the Halifax Citadel, and later the Intercolonial Railroad were also forced to live in shanty towns outside the city's limits at the time, or along the canal route. The Irish navvies were white. Their homes were usually built into the sides of hills, made of loose stones, and covered with marsh grass or other temporary roofing material. Irishtown, a cluster of log and stone huts where the Irish canal workers lived during the late 1820s, too is long forgotten; it lay on the west side of Sullivan's Pond on the hill. - Tony Seed





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