Black Nova Scotians are people of African-American descent whose ancestors fled Colonial America as slaves or freemen, and later settled in Nova Scotia, Canada during the 18th and early 19th centuries. As of the 2011 Census of Canada, 20,790 black people live in Nova Scotia, most in Halifax. Nova Scotia has a sizeable number of Black Canadians who are descended from freed American slaves.
After the American Revolution, the first significant immigration of Black Nova Scotians happened and they established the oldest black communities in the province at Birchtown, East Preston, Cherrybrook, Lincolnville, Upper Big Tracadie, Five Mile Plains, North Preston. The second immigration of Black Nova Scotians happened after the War of 1812, when other black communities were established at Africville, Five Mile Plains, Uniacke Square, North Preston, Mulgrave Park, Lucasville, Beechville, parts of Hammonds Plains and several others.
The first recorded instance of a black presence in Canada was that of Mathieu de Costa. He arrived in Nova Scotia sometime between 1603 and 1608 as a translator for the French explorer Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Monts. The first known black person to live in Canada was a slave from Madagascar named Olivier Le Jeune (who may also have been of partial Malay ancestry).
Of the 10, 000 French living at Louisbourg (1713-1760) and on the rest of Ile Royale, 216 were slaves. According to historian Kenneth Donovan, slaves on Ile Royal “became servants, gardeners, bakers, tavern keepers, stone masons, musicians, laundry workers, soldiers, sailors, fishermen, hospital workers, ferry men, executioners and nursemaids.” Over 90 per cent of the slaves were Blacks from the French West Indies.
When Halifax, Nova Scotia was established (1749), numerous British people brought slaves. Prominent shipowner and trader, for example, Joshua Mauger sold slaves at auction in Halifax. There are numerous newspaper advertisements for run away slaves. Of the 3000 inhabitants of Halifax in 1750, 400 were labelled “servants”, some of which were slaves. 17 were free black people. In 1767, of the 13, 374 people in the present-day Maritimes, 104 of the were Black and 54 lived in Halifax.
The end of the American War of Independence led the Black Loyalists to flee what was becoming the United States of America, many being relocated in the British colony of Nova Scotia, Canada. Following Dunmore’s Proclamation, the British authorities in American colonies promised freedom to the former slaves of the rebelling Americans, who escaped and made their way into British lines. Large numbers of enslaved colonial African Americans took advantage of this opportunity to obtain their freedom and they made their way over to the British side, as did a much smaller number of free African Americans.
Approximately three thousand Black Loyalists sailed to Nova Scotia between April and November of 1783, travelling on both Navy vessels and British chartered private transports. This group was largely made up of tradespeople and labourers. Many of these African Americans had roots mainly in American states like Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. Some came from Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York as well. Many of these African settlers were recorded in the Book of Negroes.
Many of the Black Loyalists performed military service in the British Army, particularly as part of the only Black regiment of the war the Black Pioneers, and others served non-military roles. The soldier’s of the Black Pioneers settled in Digby and were given small compensation in comparison to the white loyalist soldiers. Many of the Blacks settled under the leadership of Stephen Blucke, a prominent Black leader of the Black Pioneers. Historian Barry Moody has referred to him as “the true founder of the Afro-Nova Scotian community.
Blucke led the founding of Birchtown, Nova Scotia in 1783. The community was the largest settlement of Black Loyalists and was the largest free settlement of Africans in North America in the 18th Century. The community was named after British Brigadier General Samuel Birch, an official who assisted in the evacuation of Black Loyalists from New York. (Also named after the general was a much smaller settlement of Black Loyalists in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia called Birchtown.) The two other significant Black Loyalist communities established in Nova Scotia were Brindley town (present-day Jordantown) and Tracadie. Just as most white Loyalists abandoned the Shelburn settlement, the majority of Nova Scotian settlers at Birchtown abandoned the settlement and emmigrated to Sierra Leone in 1792. To accommodate these British subjects, the British government approved 16,000 pounds for the emmigration, three times the total annual budget for Nova Scotia.
The other significant Black Loyalist settlement of Tracadie. Led by Thomas Brownspriggs, Black Nova Scotians who had settled at Chedabucto Bay behind the present-day village of Guysborough migrated to Tracadie (1787). None of the Blacks in eastern Nova Scotia migrated to Sierra Leone.
One of the Black Loyalist was Andrew Izard (c. 1755 – ?). He was a former slave of Ralph Izard in St. George, South Carolina. He worked on a rice plantation and grew up on Combahee. When he was young he was valued at 100 pounds. In 1778 Izard made his escape. During the American Revolution he worked for the British army in the wagonmaster-general’s department. He was on one of the final ships to leave New York in 1783. He traveled on the Nisbett in November, which sailed to Port Mouton. The village burned to the ground in the spring of 1784 and he was transported to Guysborough. There he raised a family and still has descendants that live in the community.
The education in the Black community was initially provided by the protestant Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Some of the schoolmasters were: Thomas Brownspriggs (c.1788-1790), Dempsey Jordan (1818-?). There were 23 black families at Tracadie in 1808; by 1827 this number had increased to 30 or more.
Decline of Slavery, 1787-1812
While many blacks who arrived in Nova Scotia during the American Revolution were free, others were not. Black slaves also arrived in Nova Scotia as the property of White American Loyalists. In 1772, prior to the American Revolution, Britain outlawed slavery in the British Isles followed by the Knight v. Wedderburn decision in Scotland in 1778. This decision, in turn, influenced the colony of Nova Scotia. Led by Richard John Uniacke, in 1787, 1789 and again on January 11, 1808 the Nova Scotian legislature refused to legalize slavery.In 1788, abolitionist James Drummond MacGregor began purchasing slaves’ freedom and chastising his colleagues in the Presbyterian church who owned slaves. In 1790 John Burbidge freed his slaves. Two chief justices, Thomas Andrew Lumisden Strange (1790-1796) and Sampson Salter Blowers (1797-1832) were instrumental in freeing slaves from their owners in Nova Scotia. They were held in high regard in the colony. By the end of the War of 1812 and the arrival of the Black Refugees, there were few slaves left in Nova Scotia. (The Slave Trade Act outlawed the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 outlawed slavery all together.)
On June 26, 1796, 543 men, women and children, Jamaican Maroons, were deported on board the ships Dover, Mary and Anne, from Jamaica after being defeated in an uprising against the British colonial government. Their initial destination was Lower Canada but on July 21 and 23, the ships arrived in Nova Scotia. At this time Halifax was experiencing a major construction boom initiated by Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn’s efforts to modernize the city’s defences. The many building projects had created a labour shortage. Edward was impressed by the Maroons and immediately put them to work at the Citadel in Halifax, Government House, and other defence works throughout the city.
The British Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth, from the monies provided by the Jamaican Government, procured an annual stipend of £240 for the support of a school and religious education. The Maroons requested and were granted passage to Sierra Leone. On August 6, 1800 the Maroons departed Halifax, arriving on October 1 at Freetown, Sierra Leone.
In 1808, George Provost authorized a black regiment to be formed in the colony under captain Silas Hardy and Col. Christopher Benson.
War of 1812
The next major migration of blacks into Nova Scotia occurred between 1813 and 1815. Black Refugees from the United States settled in many parts of Nova Scotia including Hammonds Plains, Beechville, Lucasville and Africville.
Canada was not suited to the large-scale plantation agriculture practised in the southern United States, and slavery became increasingly rare. In 1793, in one of the first acts of the new Upper Canadian colonial parliament, slavery was abolished. It was all but abolished throughout the other British North American colonies by 1800, and was illegal throughout the British Empire after 1834. This made Canada an attractive destination for those fleeing slavery in the United States, such as American minister Boston King.
Royal Acadian School
In 1814, Walter Bromley opened the Royal Acadian School which included many black students – children and adults – whom he taught on the weekends because they were employed during the week. Some of the black students entered into business in Halifax while others were hired as servants.
In 1939, the African Schools were established at Preston, Hammond’s Plains and Beech Hill.
Cornwallis Street Baptist Church
Following Black Loyalist preacher David George, Baptist minister John Burton was one of the first clergy people to integrate black and white Nova Scotians into the same congregation. In 1811 Burton’s church had 33 members, the majority of whom were free blacks from Halifax and the neighbouring settlements of Preston and Hammonds Plains. According to historian Stephen Davidson, the blacks were “shunned, or merely tolerated, by the rest of Christian Halifax, the blacks were from the first warmly received in the Baptist Church. Burton became known as “an apostle to the coloured people” and would often be sent out by the Baptist association on missionary visits to the black communities surrounding Halifax. He was the mentor of Richard Preston.
Cornwallis Street Baptist Church (formerly known as the African Chapel and the African Baptist Church) is a baptist church in Halifax, Nova Scotia that was established by Black Refugees in 1832. When the chapel was completed, black citizens of Halifax were reported to be proud of this accomplishment because it was evidence that former slaves could establish their own institutions in Nova Scotia. Under the direction of Richard Preston, the church laid the foundation for social action to address the plight of Black Nova Scotians.
Preston and others went on to establish a network of socially active Black baptist churches throughout Nova Scotia, with the Halifax church being referred to as the “Mother Church.” Five of these churches were established in Halifax: Preston (1842), Beechville (1844), Hammonds Plains (1845), and another in Africville (1849) and Dartmouth. From meetings held at the church, they also established the African Friendly Society, the African Abolition Society, and the African United Baptist Association.
The church remained the centre of social activism throughout the 20th Century. Reverends at the church included William A. White (1919-1936) and William Pearly Oliver (1937-1962).
American Civil War
Numerous Black Nova Scotians fought in the American Civil War in the effort to end slavery. Perhaps the most well known Nova Scotians to fight in the war effort are Joseph B. Noil and Benjamin Jackson. Three Black Nova Scotians served in the famous 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry: Hammel Gilyer, Samuel Hazzard, and Thomas Page.
Coloured Hockey League
In 1894, an all-black ice hockey league, known as the Coloured Hockey League, was founded in Nova Scotia. Black players from Canada’s Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island) participated in competition. The league began play 23 years before the National Hockey League was founded, and as such, it has been credited with some innovations which exist in the NHL today. Most notably, it is claimed that the first player to use the slapshot was Eddie Martin of the Halifax Eurekas, more than 100 years ago. The league remained in operation until 1930.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), was the only predominantly black battalion in Canadian military history and also the only Canadian Battalion composed of black soldiers to serve in World War I. The battalion was raised in Nova Scotia. 56% of the battalion was from Nova Scotia (500 soldiers). (An earlier black military unit in Nova Scotia was the Victoria Rifles (Nova Scotia).)
Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Led by minister William Pearly Oliver, the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1945 out of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. The organization was intent of improving the standard of living for Black Nova Scotians. The organization also attempted to improve black-white relations in co-operation with private and governmental agencies. The organization was joined by 500 Black Nova Scotians. By 1956, the NSAACP had branches in Halifax, Cobequid Road, Digby, Wegymouth Falls, Beechville, Inglewooe, Hammonds Plains and Yarmouth. Preston and Africville branches were added in 1962, the same year New Road, Cherrybrook, and Preston East requested branches. In 1947, the Association successfully took the case of Viola Desmond to the Supreme Court of Canada. It also pressured the Children’s Hospital in Halifax to allow for black women to become nurses; it advocated for inclusion and challenged racist curriculum in the Department of Education. The Association also developed an Adult Education program with the government department.
By 1970, over one-third of the 270 members were white.
Black United Front
In keeping with the times, Reverend William Oliver began the Black United Front in 1969, which explicitly adopted a black separatist agenda. The black separatist movement of the United States had a significant influence on the mobilization of the Black community in 20th Century Nova Scotia. This Black separatist approach to address racism and black empowerment was introduced to Nova Scotia by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. Garvey argued that black people would never get a fair deal in white society, so they ought to form separate republics or return to Africa. White people are considered a homogenous group who are essentially racist and, in that sense, are considered unredeemable in efforts to address racism.
Garvey visited Nova Scotia twice, first in the 1920s, which led to a Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) office in Cape Breton, and then the famous 1937 visit. He was initially drawn by the founding of an African Orthodox Church in Sydney in 1921 and maintained contact with the ex-pat West Indian community. The UNIA invited him to visit in 1937. (Garvey presided over UNIA regional conferences and conventions in Toronto, in 1936, 1937, and 1938. At the 1937 meeting he inaugurated his School of African Philosophy.)
Despite objections from Martin Luther King Jr., this separtist politics was reinforced again in the 1960s by the Black Power Movement and especially its militant subgroup the Black Panther Party. Francis Beaufils (aka Ronald Hill) was a fugitive Black Panther facing charges in the U.S. who had found refuge in rural Nova Scotia. The separatist movement influenced the development of the Halifax-based Black United Front (BUF). Black United Front was a Black nationalist organization that included Burnley “Rocky” Jones and was loosely based on the 10 point program of the Black Panther Party. In 1968, Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase Black Power!, visited Nova Scotia helping organize the BUF.
Black Cultural Centre
Reverend William Oliver eventually left the BUF and became instrumental in establishing the Black Cultural Centre, which opened in 1983. The organization houses a museum, library and archival area. Oliver designed the Black Cultural Centre to help all Nova Scotians become aware of how Black culture is woven into the heritage of the province. The Centre also helps Nova Scotians trace the history of overcoming racism in the province. For his efforts in establishing the three leading organizations in the 20th century to support Black Nova Scotians and, ultimately, all Nova Scotians, William Oliver was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984.
Several distinct unions and other organizations have been created by Black Nova Scotians to serve the community. Some of these include the Black Educators Association of Nova Scotia, African Nova Scotian Music Association, Health Association of African Canadians and the Black Business Initiative. Individuals involved in these and other organizations worked together with various officials to orchestrate the government apologies and pardons for past incidents of racial discrimination.
The Africville Apology was delivered on 24 February 2010 by Halifax, Nova Scotia for the eviction and eventual destruction of Africville, a Black Nova Scotian community.
Viola Desmond Pardon
On April 14, 2010, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Mayann Francis, on the advice of her premier, invoked the Royal Prerogative and granted Viola Desmond a posthumous free pardon, the first such to be granted in Canada. The free pardon, an extraordinary remedy granted under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy only in the rarest of circumstances and the first one granted posthumously, differs from a simple pardon in that it is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was in error. The government of Nova Scotia also apologised. This was largely because of actions taken by Desmond’s younger sister Wanda Robson, and a professor of Cape Breton University, Graham Reynolds, to ensure that Desmond’s name was cleared and the government admitted its error.
In honour of Desmond, the provincial government has named the first Nova Scotia Heritage Day after her.
Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Apology
Children in an orphanage that opened in the year 1921, the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse by staff over a 50-year period. Ray Wagner is the lead counsel for the former residents who successfully made a case against the orphanage. In 2014, the Premier of Nova Scotia Stephen McNeil wrote a letter of apology and about 300 claimants are to receive monetary compensation for their damages.