Africville is an example of the history of racism in Canada. It challenges the national myth that because Canada didn’t have slavery that the country is not built on a foundation of white supremacy, racism and colonialism.
Located near the Bedford Basin, the land of Africville started off with a population solely comprised of indigenious people. In the late 1800s the land was largely sold off to black families, (by white landlords) many who were slaves who had escaped to Canada or black loyalists from the war of 1812. First known as the Campell Road Settlement, the name Africville only came into use in the 1900s. This was never an official designation and residents have been quoted asserting that rather than reflecting an Africian population, the name came into use because all the people of colour lived in that part of town.
The tight knit community evolved throughout the decades despite hardships, such as the Halifax explosion. The houses in the community ranged from small houses to shacks. Poverty was common due to racism, allowing only for low wage jobs. 65% of residents worked as domestic servants. There was little access to education in the community. In 1883 Africville had recieved it’s first school, but because the community was solely responsible for its funding, none of the teachers obtained formal training until the 1930s.
Africville was denied many of the basic needs of a community by the city, such as proper roads, street lamps or electricity. Residents were constantly protesting, trying to get simple services like water and sewage lines running in the community. Despite the lack of services, the community continued to pay muncipal taxes.
Though unwilling to help the community get access to basic neccesities, the city of Halifax was interested in developing the land of Africville. The city began to encroach on the settlement, setting up unpopular industries out of sight of the white people. In 1853 the city built a prision in Africville, later a slaughterhouse, an infectous diesease hospital, even the city dump. These added to the dimishing health of the people in Africville. Residents resisted, foraging the dump and selling back usable items to the very people who had thrown them away. The population swelled at 400 residents after the second World War. Overpopulated and entrenched in poverty, Africville had become a slum.
In the 1940s, the city began discussing revitalization projects with the province that would relocate residents of slums and redevelop those areas. These talks came into fruition in 1961 with the official creatation of the Development Department in the city of Halifax. What soon followed in the next few years was a unanimous decision at city hall to relocate all residents of Africville, with the good intention that social workers, community members and city services.
Framed in the patronizing tone, the city insisted that they knew what was best for residents. All the while the people of Africville had been organizing to assert their rights. This resulted in a political alliance between the people of colour who lived in Africville and some white human rights lawyers from Halifax. They formed the Halifax Human Rights Advisory Committee. At a meeting with more than 100 people in attendance, the vote was unanimous to remain in the Africville community.
The relocation began in 1964 despite protests. Only 14 residents had clear legal titles to their land. The rest, who had no legal rights, were given $500 and a promise of follow-up services which never materialized. Residents resisted the eviction for as long as they could, making the process last over three years. The city, who had promised to assist with the move, used the municipal dump trucks. This image stuck with residents as a final form of degradation on top of the eviction and shows how poorly the people of Africville were treated before, during and after the relocation. The city demolished the houses as they were evacuated one by one. This made resistence much harder, after most of the residents had left. The church of Africville was torn down in 1969 for fear of controversy and the last house was destroyed on January 2nd, 1970.
One resident, Eddie Carvery returned to Africville after the eviction. He started a protest, occupying the land he grew up on. His activist bio can be read on Jon Tattrie’s website here.
Many of the same problems followed residents into their housing projects. Many apartments assigned to residents were slated to be demolished in a few months. The same systems of poverty fueled by racism made it impossible for many families to break out of it. None of the services the city had promised were ever delivered. The biggest complaint amongst evicted Africville residents was that they had no sense of community in the city or pride in their homes.
Where Africville once stood, there’s now a highway. A small park was created after protests in the 1980s brought attention back to the community. This was meant to satisfy and silence descendants. It wasn’t until 2002 that the federal government declared Africville a historical site, which was a bittersweet victory for descendants. In 2005, NDP MPP Maureen MacDonald introduced a provincial bill named the Africville Act. The proposed bill was never passed, but included compensation and a formal apology.
Finally, in 2010 Halifax mayor Peter Kelly officially apoligized for the eviction as a part of a $4.5 million compensation deal. At the following annual reunion at the park, past residents and decesdants renamed the park Africville.