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Africville's Life After Death

For the week of Monday February 28, 2011

On February 24, 2010, Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly apologized to former residents of Africville for the past bulldozing of their neighbourhood. The apology is but the latest chapter in the tumultuous history of this Maritime African-Canadian community.

Two customers at Matilda Newman's general store in Africville
© Ted Grant, Library and Archives Canada/e002283006
Africville was established in the 1840s by the families and descendants of African-American refugees who fled to Nova Scotia after siding with the British in the War of 1812. This small community, located on the side of Bedford Basin, was secluded from the City of Halifax freeing residents from the discrimination of white society. Yet, Africville was close enough to the city that residents could find jobs downtown and on the docks. In this setting, Africville was, by the end of the 19th century, a vibrant community complete with family homes, small businesses, a Baptist church and a school.

However, from an early period, the community suffered as the City of Halifax considered Africville as an industrial area rather than a residential neighbourhood. A human waste disposal site and an infectious disease hospital were established in 1858 and the 1870s respectively, on the borders of the community. The city also neglected to service the neighbourhood. This left residents without the running water, indoor plumbing and adequate police protection enjoyed by other Halifax neighbourhoods as early as 1909. Through both World Wars, these conditions persisted giving the community the reputation of a slum in the eyes of outsiders.

A steep Africville street prior to demolition
© Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management, Bob Brooks NSARM accession no. 1989-468, box 16

Starting in 1947, city council began to consider replacing Africville with an industrial park. These plans came to fruition in 1962 when it decided, without much community consultation, to relocate residents and bulldoze the neighbourhood. Although residents wanted to remain in Africville, they reluctantly accepted a resettlement proposal – in return for better housing, a social worker to help with relocation, and job training.

With this deal in place, the city moved the inhabitants and destroyed the buildings of Africville between 1964 and 1970. Yet, the community spirit of Africville persisted even after this period of upheaval. To further this spirit, the Africville Genealogy Society was established in 1983. Also, a movement was started to push for an apology and fair compensation from the City of Halifax. The apology by Mayor Kelly, backed by an agreement to build an interpretive centre on the site of the former community, is an important step to ensuring the continued memory of this community.

Africville was designated a National Historic Site in 1996 to commemorate its enduring role as a symbolic snapshot into African Canadian life in Nova Scotia.

February is Black History Month. To learn about two famous Africville residents, please read the This Week in History stories One of Boxing's Best is Born! and Breaking Down Racial Barriers Through Music.

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