Restoring Africville’s heart
Sunday Miller, executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust. Photo: CTV Atlantic.
The Seaview United Baptist Church was the heart of Africville. It was more than a church to its members; it was a place for celebrating special occasions, a building where children studied music and took part in clubs, and a place where sports teams like those in the Coloured Hockey League started.
“The church was pivotal to the lives of those who lived in the community,” says Sunday Miller, executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust. 2017 marks 50 years since city workers demolished the church. In commemoration, the Africville Museum (a replica of the church) hosted a sunrise Easter service.
The date was meaningful because the last service in the Seaview Church was Easter 1967. “It took me right back,” says former Africville resident Irvine Carvery. “It was just a matter of closing your eyes and you were back at that service in 1967.”
The service was planned by a committee that included former members of the Africville church and was done in the same style as the services held there. It was full of lively music, testimonials, and stories from the former church and community.
“Thank God for the style that was here this morning,” says former Seaview United Church member Beverly Dixon-David. “It was the same style that they did.”
There was also recognition that destroying the church gutted the community.
“It was taken away in a very unceremonial way; it was done wrong,” says former Halifax mayor Peter Kelly. “This gives us a chance to rethink those mistakes of the past and to be here in the church to recognize that the community is still strong, and will always be strong.”
While many recognize that apology as the beginning of reconciliation, there are still unanswered questions about the demolition of the Seaview church, a building many remember as the most important institution in the community.
“People knew that, at some point, they were going to lose the church,” explains Miller. “But they had a promise from the powers-that-be that they wouldn’t take the church down until there was no one left in the community.”
But that’s not what happened. The demolition was well before the last residents left in 1970 and before a planned final service.
“It was taken down in the early hours of the morning, and we know that happened because there were eye witnesses,” confirms Miller.
One of them was Irvine Carvery’s brother. “It was my older brother Dickie who came home and says to Mama, ‘My God Mama, they tore the church down,’” he recalls.
Workers tore the church down before the city had even formally bought it; that was just confirmed this year. “We’re talking about a church….an institution that’s supposed to be revered,” says Carvery. “And yet the city of Halifax didn’t even have respect for that institution, one of the only institutions in Africville.”
Until this year, one of the only official documents related to the church in the Halifax Municipal Archives was a deed showing that the city bought the church for $15,000 in 1968. But even that document raised questions, as it was originally dated 1967; someone used a pen to change the “7” to an “8.”
But this year, researchers found another document in the Halifax Municipal Archives. It confirms what former Africville residents had suspected all along: the church was demolished in 1967 before the deed was signed in 1968. The new document is a memorandum from the City Works department, dated October 18, 1967. It confirms that the city requested the church be demolished at that time. The document is also annotated at the bottom with the date “11/20/1967” and a signature confirming the demolition.
As for why the church was torn down early, no one seems to know. The people who made that decision are now dead. Descendants and researchers are left to speculate about why it happened. “Perhaps what happened was that they wanted to get the people out of Africville and they weren’t leaving because the church was there, so it was removed,” says Miller.
It’s something that others have come to agree with over the years, but the pain of the unexpected demolition remains. “When people were relocated, they were dispersed so people didn’t know where others lived,” says Miller.
It meant that a lot of families lost touch with each other after the church was gone because there was no longer a place for them to gather in Africville.
Another tragic aspect of the demolition is that parishioners were planning one last service in the building. Every year, the community held a Harvest service in the fall, and the service in 1967 was expected to be the final big celebration in the Seaview United Baptist Church.
Despite the dark history of the demolition and the relocation of the members of the community, this year’s service was held to remember the importance of the church in the once close-knit community. Organizers also hope it will be the first of many annual celebrations at the museum and on the grounds where the community of Africville once stood.
“Fifty years later, when we’re again celebrating the birthday of Canada, let’s give the people of Africville something to celebrate, too,” says Miller.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.