February is Black History month. We’ll help celebrate it with two entries dealing with music inspired and produced by two very different Afro-Canadian communities. The first is from Nova Scotia. You can get directly involved in this one by going to your post office where two stamps issued for Black History Month are on sale. The one I bought features the face of Viola Desmond. If you buy a booklet of ten you get her story. Stranded in New Glasgow in 1946 and waiting for her car to be repaired, Viola went to the movies to pass the time but found that the theatre was segregated. Blacks sat in the balcony. She refused to move from her orchestra seat and was jailed and fined. She appealed and finally, after a decade, won and destroyed Nova Scotia’s segregation laws. Buy the stamps and read the story.
The ending of the story of Africville is not as happy. Africville was a small community, inhabited entirely by African Nova Scotians in Halifax. There is a street called Africville there today, north of the city centre, but the community is long gone. The bulk of Nova Scotia’s Black population arrived as Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, mainly after the War of 1812. They were promised land and equal rights by the British. As many as 3000 came north. The British did not live up to their promises, but the community endured.
Africville was one community of many, never having more than 400 or so inhabitants. It was always a challenging place, abused by the authorities who used the area for sewage disposal, a prison, hospital for people with infectious diseases and the city incinerator, amongst other insults. That said, the community had spirit. Starting after World War Two, the city of Halifax starting making noise about “relocating” Africville. After the better part of two decades, and against the wishes of the folks living there, Africville was destroyed in 1968.
Like the promises the British made, the promises of their inheritors were also found wanting. Most inhabitants of Africville were given little compensation and found themselves in public housing slums. It remains a scar and a painful one in Nova Scotia’s history of mistreatment of Afro Nova Scotians. There is a National Film Board short film on Africville and its legacy, made in 1989. It is well worth checking it out to hear the story from those who lived it:
There are a number of musical commemorations that testify, celebrate and mourn Africville. Two are by very different artists: Faith Nolan and Joe Sealy. Both are linked to Nova Scotia and Africville by family ties. Faith Nolan was born in Halifax, and her parents and extended family were coal miners of African, Miqmaq and Irish heritage. Although she grew up in Toronto, Faith’s connection to Nova Scotia was unbroken, and in 1986 she made a record called Africville. It is the story of the Nova Scotia Black community in a series of songs. The title track, “Africville” can be heard here.
Joe Sealy is one of Canada’s finest jazz pianists. He was born in Montreal but his family also has deep roots in Nova Scotia. In 1996 he composed and recorded the Africville Suite, dedicated to his father. It paints an audio picture of Africville and its communal life. It won a JUNO award. Since then, Joe has amplified the suite into a presentation called Africville Stories. The Africville story continues right to the present time with a new tribute composition titled “The Seaview African United Baptist Church”. The re-construction of the church has been discussed for years and it is currently nearing completion on the site of Africville. Its construction is seen as a small step towards compensating the “Africville” community for injustices of the past. A recording of singing at the Church made in the sixties is available here. Africville Suite is available here. You can see and hear Joe play at JazzEast.
So, in the spirit of Black History month, take a look and a listen, and learn a bit about Africville and “what’s been did and hid.” Next time, I’ll take a look at the Underground Railway and its northern terminus, Canada.
For more on the Black-Canadian experience, visit Black History Canada.