The journey continues in Nova Scotia where Measha takes a closer look at Canadian Maritime history. The Nova Scotia Mass Choir helps Measha discover the soul of spiritual songs, while we hear from the descendants of black immigrants to Canada from the 1700s.

Chapter 2

Our Roots

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Chapter 2

Our Roots

The journey continues in Nova Scotia where Measha takes a closer look at Canadian Maritime history. The Nova Scotia Mass Choir helps Measha discover the soul of spiritual songs, while we hear from the descendants of black immigrants to Canada from the 1700s.

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Music and Community

By Marko Simmonds, graduate of the Berklee College of Music, music entrepreneur, songwriter and musical director of the Nova Scotia Mass Choir. Marko has performed nationally and internationally and most recently collaborated with Canadian opera singer Measha Brueggergosman on Songs of Freedom. Here he speaks about growing up in North Preston, Nova Scotia, and the significance of music and spirituality in his life.

Driving up Richards’ Hill on Forestry Road leads you towards Lake Major in Nova Scotia. Water flows beneath you as you cross the “Long Bridge,” and autumn leaves smile from every side. If you turn your head to the left, you can see North Preston situated on the hilly woods of Lake Major – my home. It’s a place where I have seen beauty, courage and grace, a place that even strangers refer to as “up home.” ImageCaption_4-1_Marko4years_270x440

For me, North Preston was a place of spiritual growth. It was where I began to discover my manhood and my position in this world. I am the youngest of five siblings, and, looking back, I was pretty spoiled growing up in the middle-class household of Mr. & Mrs. Morton Simmonds. I was a “church boy.” My week consisted of Sunday school, Monday night meetings with the Baptist Youth Fellowship, Wednesday night Bible study, Thursday night choir rehearsal, Friday night youth activities and Sunday morning worship service – all of which was then repeated the following week. This was my schedule until my teenage years when school dances and house parties slowly crept into my life. It was fun growing up in North Preston. Everybody was your uncle, aunt, cousin or friend.

Today North Preston is the largest indigenous black community in Canada. While growing up, it was a predominantly black community. Though interaction with people of other races was common, it didn’t happen often for me. My first true interaction with someone of another race came in grade seven at Ross Road School (which was also the year of my first kiss, but that’s a story for another day). Growing up, all of my friends were African-Nova Scotian; we would be the next generation that would venture out of North Preston, making lasting connections with people of all races and religions throughout our teenage and adult years.

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My brother Ernie always swore by the formula “Education plus God equal Success,” and I still believe it. Without a doubt, the importance of education, respect for older generations and the belief in Jesus Christ our Lord were strong values during my childhood, and they continue to be the foundation behind the communities of North Preston, East Preston and Cherry Brook (in the Preston area of Nova Scotia). These fundamental values have allowed our community to flourish, and they have allowed me to remain diligent when faced with adversity.

Music has been the most significant force for me and my family

Music has been a significant force for my family and me. I have been surrounded by music all my life. I took 11 years of classical and jazz piano lessons. I have a mother and a sister who are singers, an uncle who was a touring guitarist in the 1960s and an older brother who was the lead music director of many community and provincial choirs. Needless to say, music has always been a primary method of self-expression in my family. Music is also the first method we use in worshipping our God.

Religion, faith and music are intertwined in a way that has strengthened me mentally, physically and spiritually. With this strength I was able to lead and develop the sound and membership of the Nova Scotia Mass Choir. Over the years, the choir has grown to encompass a new level of professionalism and musicianship. None of this would have been possible without faith, religion, friendship and the choir’s common connection to gospel music.

Gospel music in particular has been a uniting force for the people of North Preston. We use elements of jazz, blues, rap, classical and gospel to express our love for each other and for God. While many genres of music have permeated the streets of North Preston over the decades, gospel music has been central to the spiritual, mental and even economic development of North Preston and surrounding communities.

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The introduction of gospel music in my community began centuries ago with former warriors and slaves. The Jamaican Maroons and Black Loyalists of the American War of Independence settled in the Preston area between 1782 and 1796. With these people came their strong belief in Christianity and their music, which gave praise to their God and comfort to the people. Centuries later, these songs continued to be sung in African-Nova Scotian churches. Songs like “Go Down Moses,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” “Lord I Want to Be a Christian” and many others have become the foundation for our history in gospel music. They have strong references to historical stories in the Bible, and for me they represent the imperative we feel to always be like Jesus, wherever we live. They tell us you should always strive to be the light in a dark world.

Gospel music continues to be an important part of our community today. We have a reputation for producing great solo artists, keyboard players, choirs, drummers, churches and dancers. Emma “Mama” Fraser, the Provincial Baptist Youth Fellowship Choir of 1972 and The Gospel Heirs, an awarding-winning gospel group of the 70s, 80s and 90s are just a few of the powerful artists that have come out of North Preston. During my childhood, these and other prominent local singers gained international recognition and paved the way for new gospel artists. Today, because of this history, artists of all genres are now singing gospel music.

 

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My Black Loyalist Ancestors

By Measha Brueggergosman, an award-winning Canadian soprano. In Songs of Freedom her historical journey begins in Nova Scotia, Canada, where she finds evidence of the trials and tribulations of her ancestors.

During my personal quest to discover the origins of my Gosman family roots on my father’s side of the family I’ve had to perform a little research. With the help of historian David States and the Nova Scotia Archives, I’ve gone back far enough to figure out how and when we came to Canada. I found the Gosman name in an entry of the Book of Negroes, a recorded list of all of the enslaved blacks (known as Black Loyalists) who gained their freedom in Canada by fighting with the British military during the American War of Independence in the late 1700s. In 1779 John Gosman became a Black Loyalist when he ran away from his Colonial enslaver, Daniel Lathem of New London, New England, to join the British troops. The Book of Negroes is the first recorded evidence of John Gosman, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

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If Gosman hadn’t risked his life to get his name in that book, I would not be sitting here right now

In the Book of Negroes I found the names of some of my ancestors: John Gosman, 23, his wife, Rose Gosman, 21, and their daughter, Fanny, five months. Fanny Gosman was the first free-born Gosman. It’s amazing to see part of my last name on a document that marked the beginning of the Gosman line in Canada as free people.

Throughout the War of Independence, slavery continued in full force and fleeing was harder than ever. Entire families risked their lives to seek freedom under extremely dangerous conditions. Many doubted the British would even keep their promise of emancipation. A number of escaped slaves were re-captured by the Americans only to be re-enslaved, hanged or lynched. Our ancestors were very courageous to have done what they did. If John Gosman hadn’t risked his life to get his name in that book and make it on the ship that took him and his family to Nova Scotia, I would not be here right now.

 

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The Black Loyalists

By Dr. Afua Cooper, James R. Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University. Her research interests are African-Canadian studies, with specific regard to the period of enslavement and emancipation in 18th and 19th century Canada including black Atlantic and African-Nova Scotian history and slavery’s aftermath. Dr. Cooper founded the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA), which she currently chairs.

The American Revolution led to one of history’s largest influxes of black migration to the Canadian East Coast. In 1776 the 13 American colonies revolted against their mother country, Britain, in an attempt to claim their independence. One of the crucial strategies of war employed by the British was to call on enslaved Africans owned by the rebels to desert their masters and join the British; in return the enslaved were promised their freedom. As a result of the call, tens of thousands of enslaved Africans fled their owners and joined the British forces. They soon became known as “Black Loyalists” or “Loyal Blacks.”

Tens of thousands of enslaved Africans fled their owners and joined the British forces

This strategy was announced with the Dunmore Proclamation, a promise of freedom signed in 1775 by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia. It was the source of much controversy. Many slave owners and colonials were enraged and feared a mass rebellion, believing that Dunmore had gone mad. Still, this proclamation motivated thousands of slaves to leave their masters – despite their knowledge of the likely consequences if they were caught – to fight for the British in exchange for their emancipation.
These African Americans fought and worked for the British in various capacities as soldiers, spies, sappers, construction workers, artisans, cooks and laundresses, and in a variety of other occupations. By the 1780s, Britain was losing the war but kept its word and issued “Certificates of Freedom” to thousands of Blacks Loyalists. With these certificates, thousands of Africans were evacuated and transported to various points in the British Empire, namely Canada, the Caribbean and the United Kingdom.

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Yet not all Black Loyalists were free or freed. The British had promised freedom to only enslaved persons owned by rebel American masters, not masters who were loyal to the Crown. Thus, thousands of White Loyalists who travelled to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and other colonies, brought their enslaved black “property” with them. As a result, in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, there were free blacks from the Black Loyalist cohort as well as enslaved Blacks labouring for White Loyalists masters.
The majority of the Black Loyalists went to Nova Scotia and built communities in Halifax, Digby, Shelburne, Birchtown, Annapolis Royal and other sites in the region. Life in Eastern Canada was hard for the Black Loyalists. The British Crown had promised them land, supplies, tools and citizenship rights in their new home. But the White Loyalists and other colonial Whites re-inscribed the social and racial order that was prevalent in the United States from which they came. That order dictated that blacks were servile persons, born to serve whites, and their place was at the bottom of both the social and racial hierarchy.

(To learn more, see Dr. Cooper’s next article in this chapter, The Historical Black Communities of Maritime Canada, below.)

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A Hard Life in Birchtown

By Deborah Hill, ethno-historian and genealogist for the Black Loyalist Heritage Society (BLHS). Deborah’s interest in Black Loyalist history developed in the late 1980s while she was trying to complete her family tree. She was trained as a Genealogical Record Searcher in 2000 and is currently contracted by BLHS to answer queries of a historical or genealogical nature.

The first fleet of Black Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia in Port Roseway, Shelburne, in May of 1783. At this time Shelburne was a growing town, but many settlers found that the colony of Nova Scotia was completely unprepared for such a large numbers of arrivals; roads had not been cleared and the land was only partially surveyed. Around this time, Measha’s ancestor John Gosman landed by ship in Port Mouton, Nova Scotia. He stayed there for a while before deciding to move to the Shelburne area in May 1784.

During this time many Black Loyalists experienced discrimination. The white residents of Shelburne were not happy about their new black neighbours. Additionally, many of the newly arrived White Loyalists – wealthy people who brought their slaves and indentured servants with them from the American colonies – did not want free blacks putting ideas of defection into the minds of those who were still enslaved.

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Although many Black Loyalists never left Shelburne, a number did leave in early 1784 when the racism grew worse. In July of 1784 Shelburne experienced the first race riot in North America. Former white soldiers from the American Revolutionary War pulled down houses, businesses and churches belonging to Black Loyalists, chasing some out of town entirely. People dispersed to various communities across the province to seek safety, but many made their way back to town once the rioting was brought under control.

Many Black Loyalists voluntarily moved to Birchtown, but others were “placed” there in the summer of 1784 through an order of the Governor of Nova Scotia. Birchtown was five miles from Shelburne and home to the largest community of free blacks outside of Africa. This is where we next locate John Gosman, who was listed as part of Captain Jacob With’s Company of Blacks in the 1784 Muster of Free Blacks in Birchtown, a province-wide census of Black Loyalists who were eligible for provisions (food, clothing, tools and seeds) distributed by the British Crown.

Over the years Black Loyalists faced dire insecurities, including being sold back into slavery

The black residents of Birchtown found the eleven-kilometre daily trek to and from Shelburne for employment nearly impossible. To make matters worse, the land grant area where people were given space to clear and cultivate land to build on was also quite far away, another eight kilometers from Birchtown.

Many inhabitants of Birchtown were given land grants but a large number were discouraged from taking possession because of the requirements that went along with the land. A land grant holder had only one year to clear and cultivate enough land to construct a dwelling (house or barn) or plant a garden upon it, or else the land would be taken back. Women and men were eligible to receive the grants as long as they met those conditions.

This area of Nova Scotia bordering the Atlantic was extremely rocky, thickly forested, and in many cases, swampy; although the Black Loyalist pioneers used the land and its resources to their advantage, it remained very difficult for them to gain a clear title. ImageCaption_6-2_SketchHenryBishop_270x470Within three years of arriving, John Gosman was one of the fortunate black immigrants who was able to buy land in eastern Nova Scotia, near the Jordan River in present-day Shelburne County. He had a deed for 100 acres dated the 26th of August 1786. In those days, 100 acres was a reasonable amount of land for anybody, but it was particularly considered a lot of land for a black settler. Even though the British government promised them that they would receive 100 or more acres for their services in the war, most of the black immigrants only received 40 to 50 acres.

Many were also cheated out of wages and rations by white townspeople, so not all were able to begin building homes of their own. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the homes they were able to build: these were rudimentary shelters that consisted of A-frame structures built over four- or five-foot deep pits in the ground, typically with a large rock at one end that served as a hearth. The planks that made up the frame were plugged with grass and moss. John Gosman was very fortunate to be able to buy a piece of land, as he did not have to rely on the grants given out – and their associated conditions.

Transcripts of court records disclose the struggles of Black Loyalists attempting to legally gain the equality promised them by the British government before, during and after their arrival in Canada. They often suffered from a lack of land grants, a sharecropper’s existence, extended travel to town and back for employment and the need to compete with white ex-British soldiers for jobs. Over the years they faced other dire insecurities, including the possibility of being rounded up by white kidnappers and sold back into slavery in the West Indies or the United States. Living conditions in the area remained very tough. Famine, cold and a very harsh environment took huge tolls on families.

It took great resilience to overcome such obstacles in life; it’s amazing that John Gosman succeeded in Birchtown. We can only conclude that he must have been a very strong and persevering person.

 


Proud to be a Maroon

By Joe Colley, a leading member of the Nova Scotia Mass Choir. Joe has lived in North Preston his entire life and has grown up listening to stories about his ancestors, the Maroons.

I grew up in North Preston where we always had Sunday gatherings and sing-alongs. We spent many Sundays sitting around talking about our ancestors and telling stories about how we came to be there. I know our history from the stories my family and our elders told me.

My family line goes as far back as the 1700s. We descend from the Maroons, a group of people stolen from Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa and brought to Jamaica to be sold into slavery and who later escaped and formed independent settlements. As soon as they arrived in Jamaica they began fighting back against their British captors; in fact, the British named them Maroons because they kept trying to run away. They refused to be enslaved. In 1796 there was a Maroon rebellion in Jamaica, and not long afterwards the British deported more than 500 Maroons to Nova Scotia.

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My great-great-great-great-grandmother Sarah Colley, who came from Trelawny Town, Jamaica, was a mistress to Sir John Wentworth, the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia. They had one child out of wedlock named George Wentworth Colley. George went on to have many descendants. One of them was my grandmother, Harriet Colley, who died in 1991 when she was 98 years old. She left 149 grandchildren, 316 great-grandchildren, 86 great-great-grandchildren, 45 great-great-great-grandchildren and six great-great-great-great-grandchildren. These are some of the stories we discuss over and over again in my community as I’ve learned the amazing history of the Maroons. Someday I would like to go back and visit the area in Jamaica where my great-great-great-great-grandmother is from, because it still exists.

My ancestors were strong people. Their minds, hearts and souls said ‘no’ to slavery

I’m very proud of our history. My ancestors were such strong people. Their strong minds, hearts and souls said “no” to slavery – and they managed to avoid it. They were free-spirited and strong, and I feel in my body and in my mind that I’m like them. I don’t need anybody to empower me. I empower myself through the spirit of God.

As I was growing up, church was always very important to my family. I’ve been going to church my whole life; my mother took us all there as kids. We always sang gospel music in church. This is why I am at the stage I’m at now. I’ve been in the music industry since I was seven years old, and I’ve been singing in public since the age of eight. In Preston, the music and the church are so intertwined – gospel music, the spirit, the body movements – all comes from the church and the Gospels. I loved going to church as a kid and it wasn’t because we were told to go. I loved to go because the atmosphere was godlike. And nothing has changed. Gospel is me. Gospel is in me.

 

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Historical Black Communities of Maritime Canada

By Dr. Afua Cooper, James R. Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University. Her research interests are African-Canadian studies, with specific regard to the period of enslavement and emancipation in 18th and 19th century Canada including black Atlantic and African-Nova Scotian history and slavery’s aftermath. Dr. Cooper founded the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA), which she currently chairs.

Since the beginning of the 17th century and continuing on for four centuries, diverse migratory streams of African peoples have settled in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, making these areas their home. These immigrants consisted of free people, enslaved people, adventurers, settlers, soldiers, refugees, exiles, explorers, miners, professionals, students and merchant seamen. History rarely fits into such neat packages, but today’s black Maritimers can be traced back to several distinct migratory groups. The most well-known among them are the Black Loyalists, the Black Refugees from the War of 1812 and the Maroons from Jamaica, but it’s important to note that since the 1600s many more identifiable groups of black people have made significant contributions to the vibrant Maritime society that exists today. For example, the Black Acadians and planter’s slaves arrived in the late 17th century and Caribbean seamen and West Indians settled in Cape Breton during the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.

    The Jamaican Maroons

One important group of Africans who made the Maritimes their home at the end of the 18th century were the Trelawny Maroons from Jamaica. The Maroons were free Africans descended from slaves who ran away during the Spanish occupation of the Jamaica to establish themselves in their own towns and villages in the mountainous and interior areas of the country.
At that time, Jamaica was a colonial and slave society, with the majority of the population —enslaved Africans — working to make the island, through sugar production, “the Jewel in the British imperial diadem.” The British hated to see free black people living on the island, and were worried that their own slaves would want to be free like the Maroons and would therefore run away from enslavement. The First Maroon War was fought between 1733 and 1737 between the British and the five main Maroon communities in Jamaica. The British could not defeat the Maroons and sued for peace in 1737-38. In the Second Maroon War, which involved only the Trelawny Town community, a peace treaty was also enacted, but the British betrayed the treaty, rounded up the Maroons and transported them to Nova Scotia in 1796.
For four years these Maroons lived and worked in the Halifax region. Many of the men worked on the fortifications at the Halifax Citadel fortress and helped to construct roads and highways in Halifax and Dartmouth. However, the Maroons did not like Canada, and in 1800 the vast majority of them left for Sierra Leone, where, joining Black Loyalists who had left eight years prior, they started a new life. The legendary “fighting spirit” of the Maroons is one of the legacies these African-Jamaicans have bequeathed to present-day African-Nova Scotians.

    The Black Refugees of the War of 1812

Between 1812 and 1816 approximately 2000 black men, women and children were transported by the British Royal Navy from the Chesapeake region of the United States to Nova Scotia in British North America. These persons, most of whom were runaway enslaved Americans, had laboured in one capacity or another for the British army during the War of 1812. Like the Black Loyalists before them, the British had promised them lives as free persons in a British territory in exchange for their contributions during the war. The British also promised these runaway Americans land, food, tools and other resources necessary to start a life in their new country of residence. At war’s end these Black Refugees, as they came to be called, were relocated to Nova Scotia. Among the relocatees, 500 were also sent to New Brunswick.
These Refugees would form the fifth distinct segment among Maritime Canada’s black population, and they became especially prominent in Nova Scotia. In this province, the Refugees would establish more than 40 black communities, all of which still exist at present time. Within Nova Scotia and New Brunswick their impact was felt largely in the communities they built and in their work as labourers in the region. From these communities emerged individuals who would go on to achieve fame and honour as exceptional Canadians: these include William Hall, who won the Victoria Cross for valour during the Indian Mutiny of 1857; James Robinson Johnston, who became Nova Scotia’s first black lawyer and Portia White, an internationally renowned contralto. Over time the Black Refugees intermarried and merged with the Black Loyalists (both free and enslaved) and developed into one community.
Unfortunately life in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick wasn’t the experience that these diverse migratory groups expected. The many broken promises, neglect and harassment that they endured led these settlers to fight their ill-treatment in a variety of ways, including through petitions, protests, migration within the regions, and, when other options failed to soften the hearts of their oppressors, they fled to West Africa. Led by Thomas Peters, a Revolutionary War veteran, and John Clarkson, an agent of the Sierra Leone Company, the community re-settled and founded Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1788. For many, this move signified an impossible return to the homeland. Those who remained behind in Canada continued to struggle for their human rights and freedoms.

    Other Groups

Since the late 1700s, various other groups have migrated to the Canadian East Coast, contributing to the unique culture of the African Diaspora that exists in the Maritimes today. One notable group is the Caribbean seamen, which began arriving in the Maritimes at the end of the 19th century. These men worked on various merchant ships or were members of the British navy. Another group were the West Indians of Cape Breton, black immigrants from the Caribbean who migrated to Cape Breton starting at the end of the 19th century and through the four first decades of the 20th century. These immigrants came mainly from Barbados, the Eastern Caribbean and Jamaica. At first, these men worked primarily in the steel industry and coal mines. Soon enough, this community boasted its own doctors, lawyers, publishers, grocers, clergy, schoolteachers and other professionals, and an identifiable and vibrant black Caribbean-Canadian community began to take shape.
 

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Knowing our History

By Rosella Fraser, a member of the Nova Scotia Mass Choir, who sang spirituals with Measha when she visited the Maritimes for Songs of Freedom.

My family is part of the original settlers of the township of Preston. My ancestors were some of the Black Refugees who came here from the United States seeking freedom after the War of 1812. The British promised them land but they didn’t receive it. There was a lot of racism in those days. They had to fight hard and petition for that land that was promised to them. My ancestors were part of that petition. My great-great-grandfather is documented as requesting and petitioning for that land and receiving it. For me that is a point of pride.

I was born in Halifax but Preston is where me and my 14 siblings grew up; it’s a place of family. I moved to Halifax when I was 17 to further my education and ultimately find work but I have always maintained my connections with North Preston, through community and church involvement. The majority of my family still lives in the Preston area; It truly is my home.

Growing up in the Preston area was wonderful. The community was like one great big extended family; but I grew up in the 1970s while people were going through hard times. We had dirt roads and no running water, which meant that water had to be carried in from the well outside of our home. This is a chore that I regularly had. There was no indoor plumbing and when winter arrived it took additional effort to get and keep water.

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We grew up in a time when men got together to help build houses, to respond to disasters like house fires and to help build community buildings like the church. Most families were very large and operated with several generations under one roof. This helped in the farm-like environment when most families raised animals like pigs, cows and chickens. Everyone pitched in to keep animals clean and fed. During the winter and other times of year fires were frequent because of the poor standard of building materials. Most houses used newspaper as a form of insulation, while a single wood stove heated the entire house. Two of my older sisters died in a house fire when they were toddlers. From what I have been told, community members came from throughout the community to help put out the fire and try save who they could.

These were times when it was your faith that had to sustain you. I remember that at Christmas time, community mothers sold wreaths to make money to purchase toys and provide for Christmas. If there was a woman who did not have the money to purchase toys they helped each other out. As a child I never understood why my mother would ask us to share our toys with another family. As an adult I am grateful for the caring and generosity that she exemplified.

Looking back, I realize that my mother was preparing me as a black child to learn to do everything that I may be needed to do as a young black woman. We learned to sew, cook, keep house, feed and tend to animals, wash linen, carry water and most of all, be respectful to our elders. Children were an integral part of home life. Waking in the winter mornings to frozen water, making the fire and melting it to wash up before school is a memory that will stay with me forever. Like most mothers, I make sure my daughters know of those hard but honorable times. They need to know the strength from which they have come.

When I think back to that time, it makes me smile because even though it was hard work, it was wonderful. You never thought about it you just did it. Many people struggled but we helped each other out; and the church was the place we all got together to support each other.

The common thread through all of our lives was our shared celebration of music

The church played such a central role in my life because our spirituality was the foundation of our lives – as it is today. As a young girl I was just filled with the Holy Spirit and it was no big deal. I celebrated and praised the lord in church. It felt very natural to be there. The church was the place where everyone got together, whether it was Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights for prayer and praise. My mother, Rosella Sr. survived the death of two little baby girls through faith and the same Baptist faith sustains me through the trials and challenges faced within today’s society.

And music is of course integral to worship. I remember my mother talking about how the older women used spirituals to save souls. It was another means of allowing the Lord to enter your spirit or to move a sinner to salvation. And our shared celebration of music was the common thread through all of our lives. My mom sang in the kitchen as she worked. She and I used to make up songs while we picked blueberries together in the woods. My dad and his father before him had also been very musical. We still get together to sing and make music. It was my father who taught me how to sing in harmony and how to blend harmonies. We were never trained but learned and practiced at home so when we came together for church services and baptisms.

That’s how I actually learned that I had a voice. One day we were singing all of a sudden my dad, who was the vocalist, looks out the corner of his eye and says, “is that you?” That was his acknowledgment, his way of saying “You really have a voice.” So I sang in many choirs until I landed here in the Nova Scotia Mass Choir, as an alto. I’m loving it. My goal is to sing until I’m at least 80 or 90 if I last that long. To this day my family continues to sing together.

 


Fighting for Africville

By Sunday Miller, Executive Director of the Africville Heritage Trust, Supervisor of the Africville Museum and the creator of a commemorative site for Africville. During Measha’s trip to Nova Scotia, she meets Sunday and visits the Africville Museum, where she learns about the area’s shocking history.

Africville was one of the largest free historic black settlements anywhere outside of Africa. I care about Africville because its past is connected to mine. My Black Loyalists ancestors fought with the British in the American War of Independence in 1783. Africville was founded by a very similar group of people, the Black Refugees. During the War of 1812, enslaved Africans were given an offer of freedom in return for their services to the British. The people who joined this war later became known as the Black Refugees.

After the war, the Black Refugees were brought to the British colony of Nova Scotia. When they first arrived, they did not have food or shelter and many were quarantined on Melville Island, a place normally for prisoners. They were not able to support themselves since they had a hard time finding employment, housing and educational opportunities because of racism. White communities did not want them, so they were segregated.

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In 1848, William Brown and William Arnold, both black settlers and the founders of Africville, sold their land in Hammonds Plains and purchased 15 to 20 acres each. The location where they purchased this land, On the northern edge of the Halifax peninsula, would eventually become known as Africville. Although the first legal deeds in Africville were purchased by Brown and Arnold in the mid-1800s century, people had been living in the area since the 1700s. Over time, the black settlers who arrived built homes, churches, a school, corner stores and a post office.

They were completely self-sufficient. They had their own land, gardens, goats and chickens. Even when it was difficult for the men to find employment, they found other ways to survive. In Africville people were finally free. They were building a community and they were happy. It was like a little piece of heaven.

Unfortunately, even though the people of Africville looked after themselves and paid their taxes, the nearby City of Halifax, which was growing and beginning to surround Africville, never provided Africville residents with needed services such running water, paved roads, ambulance services, police services, or fire protection. Electricity towers were set up in Africville in 1934 but inhabitants of Africville didn’t actually get electricity until 1950. The people of Africville wrote letters to the City requesting these essential services, but they didn’t get any of them.

Eventually the City did pay Africville some attention, placing some of the most undesirable elements of city infrastructure in the Africville community, including a prison, an infectious disease hospital, an incinerator and a dump. At that time, there was no proper disposal system at the dump, which was constantly burning. Everything from the City of Halifax, from dead dogs to hospital waste products, went into the Africville dump. In the end Africville was called a slum.

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In the 1960s the City of Halifax began gaining global notoriety about Africville’s slum-like conditions. City officials became embarrassed and committed themselves to fixing the problem. At this pronouncement, the people of Africville excitedly thought that their petitioning had paid off and that they were finally going to get running water and paved roads. But when they met with officials, they were told that a decision had been made: the residents of Africville would have to leave.

What I find absolutely amazing is that while the people of Africville were meeting with officials in Halifax, fighting in vain to keep what was by rights already theirs, hundreds of thousands of people were marching for civil rights in Washington with Martin Luther King Junior. People of all backgrounds were marching in the United States to protest the unjust and unequal treatment of blacks and other minorities, while the people of Africville were fighting to keep land that they owned. Africville was most definitely a civil rights issue, but people didn’t equate what was going on in the United States with what was transpiring in Africville. The civil rights movement was being felt everywhere, but it had no impact in Halifax. We were so blind to our own condition.

The move was absolutely devastating to the community. Not only were people losing their land and their freedom, but they were also being stripped of their self-respect and independence. Africville was their home, which they had created after risking death in wartime to have freedom. And now it was being taken away.

Once a person agreed to move they were given two hours to leave – some even had no notice whatsoever. The majority of the 400 people in Africville were transferred in garbage trucks to public housing in other areas of Halifax, and their land was taken from them, often with little or no compensation. I believe that the destruction of Africville and the transfer of people into public housing was a form of enslavement by a master who clearly did not value them. In the city people no longer had land for gardens, chickens or goats, and they still didn’t have employment. Now they had to pay rent and most of the time their only option was social assistance.

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The situation in Africville was avoidable

The destruction of Africville was avoidable – the City of Halifax had alternatives. It could have given Africville running water, a sewer system, paved roads, a postal service, police, fire and ambulance services – all the services that the residents were actually paying for with their taxes. It could have created streets and lanes in Africville so the residents could have had legal civic addresses. If the City hadn’t neglected Africville, this community would not have turned into a slum.

Right now Africville is an off-leash dog park and condo development, but the Africville Heritage Trust is working to create a commemorative site for the community so that the spirit of Africville can live on. Our mandate is to try and create a space that helps people understand what Africville was. Many people think that the people of Africville were just squatters. They don’t realize that they owned the land. It’s atrocious that such a misconception still exists so widely.

One of the things people from Africville say to me over and over again is that “the land was taken from us and we were forced to move and now they’ve given the land to the dogs.”

African Nova Scotians who came as Black Loyalists and Black Refugees are indigenous to Nova Scotia. Their settlement and contributions to the province should be recognized and honored.

 

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