||July/August 2012 issue||
Return to Africville
Photography by Jeff Friesen with text by Jon Tattrie
For 51 weeks of the year, Eddie Carvery lives alone in
a battered old camper on the shore of the Bedford Basin,
in Halifax. A hand-painted red sign declares the site to
be the “Africville Protest.” He’s been here for 42 years, far longer
than the time he lived in the community that once spread
along the shoreline.
But in that 52nd week, usually in late July or early August,
something extraordinary happens: Africville is resurrected.
Hundreds of former residents and their descendants arrive to
celebrate and reminisce, setting up tents and campers where
their homes once stood before the city demolished them in the
1960s in a fit of misguided civic planning.
“The excitement is always there,” says Carvery. “Every year,
it’s rekindled — that same jubilation of the community coming
together. And then the sadness when everybody leaves.”
Africville was Canada’s oldest indigenous black settlement.
Oral tradition dates it to the founding of Halifax, in 1749,
when the new city’s small black population settled there. It grew
when the Black Refugees fled the United States between 1813
and 1816 and became a thriving community with farmlands,
markets and dockyards. Its population peaked in the 1960s,
with about 400 people from 80 different families.
But by 1915, Halifax itself was growing, and the city
needed space to accommodate its industrial infrastructure.
It turned to Africville. Although residents there paid taxes
(but had no running water, sewage or paved roads), the city,
without consultation, began putting unwanted industries, such
as slaughterhouses, in and around the area over the next few
decades. In 1955, the city dump was built a few hundred metres
from Africville’s church.
Then, in the early 1960s, the city decided to expand
development and moved to expropriate all the properties in
Africville, a decision based on a now-discredited report that
recommended removing “the blighted housing and dilapidated
structures of the Africville area.” It was a long, tortuous process,
as many did not want to leave, so the community was destroyed
one house at a time. The death knell came one night in 1967,
when the city bulldozed the church, the spiritual heart of
Africville, without warning.
It took three more years before the last resident left (most
had been relocated to temporary housing in Halifax, but others
moved to cities such as Montréal, Toronto and Winnipeg),
and that’s when Carvery started his protest. In 1982, the
Africville Genealogy Society began holding annual summer
picnics in the ruins of the settlement. In 1996, the area was
designated a National Historic Site. In July 2011, the site was
officially renamed Africville. And, in the fall of 2011, the city
built a memorial church there as part of an apology package for the community’s destruction. Slowly, the memories of
Africville have been revived, its cultural value recognized.
“We wanted to pass down to our children the legacy of
Africville and what it was like to be out there — the freedom,
the love that we had,” says Brenda Steed-Ross, who helped
organize the first picnic in 1982. “We think back to our elders
and how it meant a lot to them. They lived in Africville all their
lives — that was the future, that was where they were going to
live and die, and then they were uprooted.”
Carvery continues to fight for a public inquiry and compensation
for the people who lost everything.
“Our God in Heaven put that church there, and maybe now
we can start rebuilding our community,” he says. “That’s my
hope — there’s no despair here.”
Photographer Jeff Friesen and writer Jon
Tattrie are both based in Halifax. Tattrie is the
author of The Hermit of Africville: The Life of Eddie Carvery.