Africville was a small African-Canadian village in the South Shore of the Bedford Basin near Halifax, Nova Scotia. From the mid-1800s, residents of Africville built their community from the ground up. Residency continued for over 100 years, until it was destroyed in the 1960s and its population relocated.
Relocation projects are embedded in Canadian history as a means of assimilating communities and cultures that do not align with colonial ideologies. This long-standing belief that white, colonial intervention is necessary for the well-being of Indigenous and Black children has resulted in disproportionate loss of self-identity, wealth, culture, and well-being, causing multi- and inter-generational effects. As described below, the history of Africville is a critical example of the way systemic racism works to undermine well-being, and serves to perpetuate the oppression of marginalized communities.
The Creation of Africville
Many of the first Black settlers in Nova Scotia following the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s. Approximately 500 to 1000 formerly enslaved people moved to Nova Scotia, which at the time was a society that not only “tolerated the values of slavery” and allowed slave-owning, but also actively participated in the important and trade of enslaved peoples.
Some people who had escaped slavery, served with American Loyalists (people who had remained loyal to the British Crown) during the War, in exchange for freedom, land, and provisions from the Crown. Known as Black Loyalists, some of these people settled in Nova Scotia after the war. Upon arrival in Nova Scotia, however, there were very few who actually received the provisions and land that they had been promised. Those who did receive land were typically located on the outskirts of white Loyalists towns. Later, other free Black people would arrive in Nova Scotia, with many settling on the outskirts of Halifax.
While Black settlers had previously lived in and around the area known as Africville, it was not until 1848 that the land was purchased for settlement. The first church, the Seaview United Baptist Church, was built in 1849 to provide a spiritual and cultural centre for the new community. The church was the “heart of Africville” and used for a range of purposes: as a town hall, business centre, and youth centre, with other developments including a school coming later.
Racism and a Lack of Infrastructure
Studies on the historical migration of Black settlers demonstrate the ways that racial biases have been embedded in Canada’s social architecture through exclusion, public segregation, and the continual revocation of rights to land, as well as as through environmental racism resulting from the view of the city that residents of Africville were not entitled to the same protections as other residents. Fishing and farming provided supplementary incomes to those living in Africville who faced challenges with irregular employment and very low wages, but white settlers often monopolized the most fertile areas leaving little good land for others to farm.
The addition of a railway in 1854 added to the problems faced by the residents of Africville. Some land was expropriated for development, resulting in relocation. The placement of undesirable developments around the community such as: an infectious disease hospital, slaughterhouses, a fertilizer plant, a tar factory, a leather tannery, a prison, and a garbage dump which made it more and more difficult for Africville’s residents to remain. Although these developments had already been deemed ill-suited for placement in cities like Fairview they were placed in proximity to Africville instead.
Further, despite paying taxes to the City of Halifax, residents of Africville did not receive relevant amenities and lived without no clean running water, no streetlights, no sewers, no garbage disposal, no public transportation, and no paved roads. Police did not patrol the area and there was no road access or fire hydrants for firefighting services.
In addition to the placement of undesirable industries and the lack of amenities residents were unable to claim ownership to the land on which they lived. There were many documented attempts of failed attempts on the part of residents of Africville to attain ownership of their homes and land, and to acquire permits to build or even to upgrade existing structures.
The Demolition of Africville and the Relocation of its Residents
The eventual razing of Africville, that is the demolition of the community, was seen to be part of Halifax’s postwar urban renewal efforts. The razing of homes was part of this approach, and necessitated the relocation of residents, forcing them to integrate into Halifax. Africville was viewed as a “slum” even though its development as such was due to failures on the part of the City, including the lack of services and troublesome zoning practices. If Africville was a “slum” it was one of the City of Halifax’s own making.
Attempts to demolish Africville began as early as 1947 when the City of Halifax decided to rezone the area for industrial use. There were a number of studies about relocation, and in1962, residents held a public meeting in which 100 residents voted against relocation. To this end, the residents of Africville rejected their own displacement and the disruption to their community and challenged the idea that industrial growth should take precedence over their community.
Nevertheless, in 1964, the Halifax government undertook an observation program to determine the viability of Africville. With only very limited consultation, Halifax City Council voted to have the community dismantled. Over the next few years, the City of Halifax used dump trucks to evict residents from the community and bulldozers to demolish their houses. To help with the transition, the government promised social support programs and provided limited compensation for relocation expenses. However, after only three years, the government terminated all, leaving the former residents of Africville without sufficient resources. Demolition continued throughout the 1960s and until January of 1970.
The process of relocation was extremely contentious. Many residents were not provided with a notice of removal and were required to leave quickly before their homes were destroyed. Contested property ownership in Africville was an obstacle for land owners who sought compensation without deeds for land, and negotiations around land ownership and settlement resulted in minimal compensation. Even those which could prove ownership of land received inadequate compensation compared to housing costs in Halifax, and those who resisted their displacement experienced expropriation and reduced compensation.
Seeking Justice and Remembering Africville
Those displaced from Africville recognized racism as a root cause of their displacement and for many years, they demanded an apology. In 1996, Africville was declared a national historic site to inform people of the ongoing battle of racism and the barriers and injustices many people of colour still must overcome today. Although protests long worked to draw attention to the injustices experienced by Africville residents, an apology was not issued until February 24, 2010. Peter Kelly, then mayor of Halifax, officially apologized for the destruction of the town which many citizens once called home. Canada offered $250,000 for the reconstruction of Seaview African United Baptist Church in efforts to reconcile the racism suffered by the community.
In September 2011, the reconstructed Seaview Church opened as a museum detailing the life in, and destruction of Africville. The Africville Action Committee has worked to keep residents connected since 1969, alongside the Africville Genealogy Society. In 2020, the Nova Scotia government announced they would be returning the original church bell, which had survived the demolition, back to the museum.
- Black Union Ft. Maestro (2007), music video commemorating Africville.
- Historica Canada video explaining the destruction of Africville
- Remembering Africville documentary — (Shelagh Mackenzie, 1991, via the National Film Board of Canada)
- Africville: The Black community Bulldozed by the City of Halifax. (2020).
Contributors: Samson Adeyemo, Kaylee Betts, Brett Butler, Melanie Comeau, Sarah Evans, Trisa Johnson, Carrie Jones, Morgan Lapointe, Liam Lutes, Faith Mambo, Ethan MacDonald, Hailey Martens, Brittany Murphy, Benjamin Randall, Olivia Rowinski, Bailey Thibodeau, Sage Walker, and Jonathan Zoungrana