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.

_RosellaFraser

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.