Africville has correctly been called Canada’s most famous black community. It has been the subject of books (both scholarly and fiction), award-winning documentaries, thousands of newspaper articles (local, national, and international), hundreds of graduate student theses, poems, songs, a jazz suite, symposia, and an exhibition that traveled across Canada and is now housed permanently at the Black Cultural Centre in Halifax Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia. There remains a continuing negotiation between the city of Halifax and the Africville Genealogical Society, which speaks for the former residents of Africville and their descendants, over compensation for the people of Africville and proper recognition of the community. A United Nations committee has also weighed in on the importance of Africville, the significance of its history, the racism and neglect that eventually made its people vulnerable to the urban renewal process and relocation, and the validity of the Africville Genealogical Society’s claims for compensation and recognition. Virtually all the public attention, certainly all the positive characterization, has occurred in the years since the community buildings were bulldozed out of existence and the residents scattered, mostly into neighboring areas of the former seashore site. Africville no longer exists in a physical sense, though surviving members and their descendants and friends usually gather each summer at the former site, now the Seaview Memorial Park, to renew ties, remember, and enjoy themselves.
Africville was founded by black refugees from the War of 1812 and their descendants, when blacks—some free, mostly slave—fled the United States for the promise of freedom and a better life in the British colony of Nova Scotia. Although not without some controversy, sociologists and historians have established that the first black settlers into the Campbell Road area of Halifax purchased their properties from white entrepreneurs in the 1840s. These first black families came from the areas of Preston and Hammonds Plains, where most of the refugees had settled, joining with loyalist blacks who had earlier fled the American Revolution (1775-1783). The move to Halifax was driven by economic need, since surviving on the small lots of scrubland made available to the refugees was difficult, if not impossible. Taking up a new life in the city, though at its outer peninsular edge, made possible both a bucolic lifestyle and opportunities for paid employment. The small community took hold over the next few decades with a church and a school. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the name Africville had become widespread and the community was deemed by black leaders in Nova Scotia to be a fine community with much promise.
From the beginning of the Africville settlement, the community was constantly encroached upon by developments in the larger society. Land was expropriated for railway construction, and various facilities, such as sewage disposal pits and an infectious-diseases hospital, were established on the edges of the community in the nineteenth century, reducing the community’s residential attractiveness and signaling future intrusions. By the end of World War I (1914-1918), Africville was ringed by facilities rejected by other residential areas of the city and was largely left to fend for itself with respect to housing standards, bylaw enforcement, and policing. Residents petitioned for services but mostly to no avail. City officials claimed there was a minimal tax base there and in any event the Africville area might be better utilized for non-residential development.
Africville evolved as a small community with considerable social diversity, but increasingly its reputation suffered as small numbers of squatters and transients (often white) moved into the community from the 1930s on. The establishment of an open dump on its doorstep in the 1950s, in addition to its sometimes condemned wells and lack of paved roads, sealed its public image as “the slum by the dump.” It was a label that belied the community’s strengths and core respectable lifestyle, but one that was widely held in the larger society among both whites and blacks and that made it impossible to resist the pressures of urban renewal, liberal welfare relocation policy, and integrationist civil rights that emerged after World War II (1939-1945) throughout Canada and the United States.
When Africville residents were relocated in 1964 to 1967, the community’s population consisted of eighty households and about four hundred people. The relocation was hailed as a fine example of liberal welfare policy. The process was guided by proposals made by a leading Canadian social housing expert, with black and white representatives of an independent human rights commission involved in each relocatee’s settlement, and a social worker responsible for working with the residents and developing educational and employment programs. Within a few years, however, the relocation’s alleged success began to be sharply challenged as the promised benefits for many Africvilleans and their families were not realized. The educational and employment programs were minimal and ineffective; the housing conditions for many relocatees—public housing and housing in areas scheduled for redevelopment—left much to be desired; and the loss of community was much grieved.
Africville became a symbol of the need for black communities to appreciate their communal culture, build on their strengths, and resist similar pressures, and also of the hubris of a liberal welfare ideology that focused on individuals rather than communities and neglected the significance of social power in ensuring that promises become actualities. Africville became a symbol for the black community’s experiences in Nova Scotia, and the lessons learned perhaps a hope for its future.
Africville Genealogical Society, ed. 1992. The Spirit of Africville. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Formac.
Clairmont, Donald H., and Dennis William Magill. 1999. Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community. 3rd ed. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press.
Walker, James W., and Patricia Thorvaldson. 1979. The Black Experience in Canada. Toronto: Gage.
Donald H. Clairmont