A place of pilgrimage
Africville Church. Photo: Hantsheroes / CC BY-SA
Ever since moving to Halifax from India, I’ve wanted to visit Africville. Recently I had the chance to go there with two of my colleagues.
After driving down a winding road alongside trucks bound for the adjacent container pier, we reached the Africville Museum situated in a park at 5795 Africville Rd. It’s a replica of a little church. There were no houses, no people, and no children playing around. Deserted. But the exhibits inside the museum took me through the history of Africville and its destruction, and the efforts of the community to keep the memories alive.
The museum, opened in 2012, stood on the park with a sweeping view of the land where the Black community had lived and flourished by the Bedford Basin. Residents faced many indignities imposed by the authorities. These included setting up a slaughterhouse, a prison, an infectious diseases hospital, human waste disposal pits, a dump, encroaching railway lines and industrialization in Africville’s backyard.
Africville was a thriving community but while the rest of Halifax had sewers, clean water, and street lighting, it had none of these. Landowners in Halifax had deeds and legal titles, but the city considered the inhabitants of Africville to be squatters. In the 1960s, city workers destroyed Africville to make way for industrial development.
The final indignity Africville suffered was shocking. Workers razed homes to the ground, demolishing the church early one morning. Residents and their belongings were transported to new locations in dump trucks.
I would have thought that such degrading treatment would leave a community totally devastated, destroying their will to survive. But that never happened. Their invincible spirit lived on and they were determined to remain a community and to reclaim Africville.
From 1972, former residents began holding picnics, church services, and weekend gatherings on the site of Africville. Organizers formed the African Genealogy Society (AGS) in 1982. The following year saw the first Africville Reunion.
I could imagine the joy and enthusiasm. Since then, it has become an annual event every July.
My colleagues and I were fortunate to meet museum general manager Juanita Peters and have a long chat. She’s a playwright, actor, and film director. She had us spellbound with her stories of Black Nova Scotian heritage. Her words painted pictures for me and I saw the stories of Africville inhabitants played out on my mind’s screen.
Although the citizens of Africville were marginalized, she told us of their happiness. They built a strong, close knit community, sharing their joys and sorrows, and helping each other. Their strength was in their unity. The later stories of loss and separation were heart-wrenching; tales of pain, anguish, and frustration.
Peters talked about the future plans of the Africville Heritage Trust, which was established in 2010 to manage the museum and the Africville Interpretive Centre. The Trust aims to make the museum a venue for telling the true story of Africville and to share the contributions of the local Black community. The large hall in the basement of the church serves as a community centre for various social activities for the local people. The museum also functions as a contact point for the former Africville residents and their descendants.
In 1996, the federal government declared Africville a National Historic Site. The citation called it “a site of pilgrimage for people honouring the struggle against racism.” On Feb. 24, 2010, then-mayor Peter Kelly apologized for the destruction of Africville. The city built a replica of the destroyed church, and the area was renamed Africville Park.
It is heartening to note that The United Nations has acknowledged that the people of Africville should be compensated for past injustices. Some parts of the Africville story will soon be incorporated into the Ontario Black History Society’s new national exhibit, Black History is Canadian History: Continuing the Conversation. I hope this will lead to a better understanding of the rich culture and the contributions of African Canadians.
But, will these meagre attempts suffice to recompense the people of Africville for their untold sufferings and irreplaceable losses? Eddie Carvery was the last person to be removed from Africville in 1969. But he couldn’t stay away.
The next year he returned to his destroyed home and pitched a tent there. He continued to live in the demolished Africville site for more than 30 years, protesting against the destruction of his community and demanding justice for his people. He demanded that the land be returned to its rightful owners.
Spending time at Africville was an emotional experience for me. I couldn’t accept the fact that certain sections of society should be marginalized and treated with disrespect. Eddie Carvery’s quest for freedom and justice resounds in the hearts of many. When will we all achieve real freedom?
CORRECTION: Due to a copyediting error, the print version of this story misstated the name of the Afro-American Genealogy Society. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.