The Shaping & Structuring of Space: Africville

This week, the Shaping & Structuring of Space features Africville, a Black Canadian settlement north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Africville was first established as a home to several white enslaving families who sold Black people into enslavement in Canada.[1] After the American Revolution in the late eighteenth century, many formerly enslaved Black people migrated to Nova Scotia, “having been freed [sic] by the British as an inducement to encourage them to leave their revolutionary masters.”[2] They were promised land grants and equal treatment but upon arrival, were pushed to “barren lots on the periphery of white Loyalist townships or in the more remote sections of the province.”[3]

Credit: Image 1, Google Maps; Image 2, Africville Story Map, 1865.

In the War of 1812, the British again promised formerly enslaved Black people land grants and equal treatment in Nova Scotia in exchange for their assistance in the war.[4] However, Black settlers did not receive full land grants, only “licences of occupation,” which restricted them from leaving their land and from selling it to anyone else. The British would grant full land grants only after three years provided that the Black settlers had ‘adequately’ developed their plots.[5] These settlers likely moved in the 1830s and 1840s to the region now known as Africville, becoming its first official settlers.[6] For example, William Brown Sr. and William Arnold are “regarded in Africville lore as the founder[s] of the community” with their initial purchases of six acres of land each in the mid-nineteenth century.[7] The region of Africville offered more fertile land, fishing, and convenient access to employment in Halifax.[8]

The buildings and community activities in Africville increased as more Black Americans arrived. The Seaview African United Baptist Church (see image below) — like many Black churches in North America — became a community space that connected Africville residents through religion, tradition, and activism. As Donald H. Claremont and Dennis William Magill comment, it also linked Africville to other Black settlements.

“Africville was a place where many coloured people lived together trying to do the best they could.”

Interview a relocatee from Africville, 1969[9]

Africville had a segregated school, a post office, and political party agents. The Africville School was established in 1883 and continued until 1953 “when it was closed by the city and the children were transferred to larger, racially integrated schools elsewhere in Halifax.”[10] Additionally, Africville founded and led its own sports teams, including a baseball team (see image below) and the Africville Brown Bombers hockey team. The first Back boxing world champion, George Dixon, grew up in Africville.[11]

Despite paying taxes to the City of Halifax, Africville residents never received essential municipal services such as paved roads, public transportation, garbage collection, recreational facilities, running water, or sewers.[12] In 1854, the City built a railway through Africville without consulting residents, often expropriating and destroying Africville homes without notice to the homeowners.[13] The City of Halifax also located its ‘undesirable services’ in Africville, such as slaughterhouses and prisons.[14]

In 1947, the City of Halifax signed plans to “turn Africville into industrial land” and to relocate Africville residents to low income housing in other areas of Nova Scotia.[15] In 1962, 100 residents of Africville voted against relocation and Africville’s destruction, but the Halifax council had the final ruling.[16] From 1964, Africville homes were bulldozed, and residents were forced to relocate to public housing.[17] A city-organizing moving company was supposed to aid in the relocation but cancelled last minute, and the City of Halifax sent in dump trucks “to move residents and their possessions” (see image above).[18]

“The city didn’t do anything to improve Africville. All the city did was to try and get it, and they did, in the end. They just did it, too, because we were coloured. If they had been white people down there, the city would have been in there assisting them to build new homes, putting in water and sewers and building the place up…. There were places around Halifax worse than Africville was, and the city didn’t do to them what they did to Africville.”

Interview with a woman from Africville, in Donald H. Claremont and Dennis William Magill, Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 1999), 51.

Systemic anti-Black racism led to the foundation of Africville in the mid-nineteenth century by forcing Black settlers (who had been promised adequate land grants) to live on the margins of Halifax. Throughout the existence of Africville, the City of Halifax refused to improve living conditions in Africville. And in the mid-twentieth century, the City of Halifax did not listen to Africville residents and, rather than fund residents, forced them to relocate and destroyed a century-old settlement. Yet, Africville’s legacy continues on in commemorations in northern Halifax and the Africville Museum. Its residents were resourceful and resilient, thriving as a vigorous community. To learn more about Africville, consider checking out:

– Catherine Ramey

[1] Jon Tattrie, “Africville,” Canadian Encyclopedia, January 27, 2014.

[2] Donald H. Claremont and Dennis William Magill, Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 1999), 26-27.

[3] Claremont and Magill, Africville, 27.

[4] Ibid, 28.

[5] Ibid, 28-29.

[6] Ibid, 30-31.

[7] Ibid, 31.

[8] Ibid, 33.

[9] Ibid, 43.

[10] Claremont and Magill, Africville, 46-47; “Summary of Halifax Board of School Commissioners Material Related to Africville,” Halifax.

[11] Jon Tattrie, “Africville.”

[12]  Claremont and Magill, Africville, 49; Jon Tattrie, “Africville.”

[13] Jon Tattrie, “Africville.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jon Tattrie, “Africville”; Matthew McRae, “The Story of Africville,” Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

[18] Jon Tattrie, “Africville.”

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