The Lost Town of Africville

The memorial to the town of Africville. It reads “Landed Deeded 1848-1969. Dedicated in loving memory of the first black settlers and all the former residents of the community of Campbell Road, Africville and all the members of the Seaview United Baptist Church.”

Africville was one of Canada’s oldest black settlements. Founded by Black Loyalists who fled to Nova Scotia after the American Revolutionary War, the area’s African-Canadian population grew after the War of 1812 along the Bedford Basin on Campbell Road, which was dubbed “Africville.”  Africville was never able to officially incorporate as its own town, existing alongside the city of Halifax.

Africville faced systematic discrimination through lack of positive development and government neglect. Again and again, Africville got the shaft in comparision with the rest of Halifax, which reduced the area into an industrialized slum by the first half of the 20th century:

Throughout its history, Africville was confronted with much racial isolation. The town never received proper roads, health services, water, street lamps or electricity. Simple things all towns received, they did not. The continuing issues and protests for water and sewage, clearly show the relationship between the city of Halifax and the Africvillians. The lack of these services had serious health implications for the lives of the people, and the city’s concerns for them was as existent as these facilities they demanded. Contamination of the wells was a serious and ongoing issues, so even the little water they did receive needed to be boiled before use. As the City of Halifax expanded, Africville became a preferred site for all types of undesirable industries and facilities—prison in 1853, a slaughterhouse, even a depository for fecal waste, from nearby Russellville. In 1958 the city decided to move the town garbage dump to the Africville area. While the residents knew they couldn’t legally fight this, they illegally salvaged the dump for usable goods. They would get clothes, copper, steel, brass, tin..etc. The dump was the final pin in labelling this area an official slum. In 1870 Africville also received an infectious disease hospital. (source)

The level of underdevelopment in Africville was severe.  Because of the railroads which ran into the heart of Africville, their local wells became polluted and water had to be boiled before drinking or cooking. Many of the houses become reduced to shanties. Most residents also had limited access to education, and there was little change for upward mobility for its residents. A strong sense of community remained, however, focussed at the Seaview United Baptist Church.

In the 1960s, Africville was slated for removal and relocation in the light of urban renovation, namely under the Rose Report of 1964. The process of removal took place between 1964 and 1967. Longterm Africville residents were surprised by the move, and many fought to keep their property. Most families, however, could not claim proof of ownership to the land, despite some families living in the town for over 150 years. In the end, the residents of Africville were forced to relocate. City dump trucks were provided to assist with the move.

As part of relocation, the residents were promised social assistance and public housing. Many were placed in housing projects, but none received any other promised government assistance or benefits.

The town of Africville was razed to the ground and part of the land was used for building a highway to the A. Murray MacKay Bridge; a majority of the land, however, remained undeveloped, despite the clamor for urban renewal which had prompted the town’s removal. In the 1980s, the Seaview Memorial Park was built in response to protests from former residents of Africville about their unjust treatment.

In 2007, the independent documentary “Stolen from Africville” was made about the obscure history of the town, a story that had never reached the Canadian mainstream — and international spotlight– until then. Since the airing of this documentary, the Nova Scotia mayor had issued an official apology for the actions against the people and descendants of Africville in February of 2010, and funding to rebuild the Seaview United Baptist Church and landmarks from the former town has been designated.

The land of Africville had also been declared a national heritage site, and the lost town has become a symbol of the often-ignored history of Canadian racism.

Further information

Africville: The Spirit Lives On – Website committed to preserving the history of Africville.

Africville on Wikipedia

“Africville apology is a start, not an end” – Article in the Huffington Post in light of Nova Scotia’s apology in 2010 for the eradication of Africville

Africville: Expropriating Black Nova Scotians – CBC National Archives

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5 Comments

Filed under Essays, History

5 responses to “The Lost Town of Africville

  1. A Canadian friend shared me this link about Africville: http://www.transmopolis.com/2010/07/africville/

    Just reading the story breaks my heart.

  2. I think the history of Africville is vital. As a Canadian, I know all to well, how people love to pretend that no racism exists here. We are constantly comparing ourselves to the U.S. and declaring ourselves morally superior. They don’t even teach in Canadian schools that slavery happened here as well, the kids only learn about the underground railroad because the makes Canada looks good. Africville should appear on every school syllabus and a national conversation needs to happen about the area. Putting up a memorial and moving on does nothing to honour the history of what happened there.

  3. This is very similar to what happened to a lot of black communities all over the US. I think the fact that the US is much more open about confronting and trying to come to terms with it’s racial past, it gives a lot of other countries which have the same issues license to point fingers.

    And while Canada seems to be better in terms of a lot of things (healthcare, immigration), they seem to have a lot of the same issues about race that the United States is struggling with. I think they should take a page from the US on this regard. Thanks for this!

  4. Pingback: The Lost Town of Africville (via Beyond Victoriana) « Clockwork Curiosities

  5. Dominique Millette

    I remember reading about Africville and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a national disgrace. It’s true there has been a lot of racism in Canada, even after the Underground Railroad. Some were quoted as saying they preferred life in the Northern United States to life in Southern Ontario.

    This is something I wrote in 2009 as I was discovering more about our not-so-morally-superior history:

    “History isn’t just a long time ago

    These days, I’m reading about the battle of the African-Canadian community against segregation in Canadian schools circa 1850. It’s a history very few people know, because we’ve spent so much time in Canada focusing on how heroic we were in welcoming slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. However, once the fugitives got here, their new home was far from a promised land. Black children were systematically excluded from common schools on pretexts ranging from the idea that they were “morally inferior” to the belief that people of African descent were “rude and uncouth” and would set a “bad example” for white children. The book in which I learned this is A History of Immigration and Racism in Canada, by Barrington Walker (Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2008, University of Michigan).

    Yes, this happened here in Canada. Sure, it happened 150 years ago. But history is more than just “once upon a time”. It leaves a lot behind. It creates who we are today.”