At Seaview Park, overlooking the Bedford Basin, the Africville Museum sits in a church-like building on the last two acres of what was Africville. Built in 2011, the museum was established to honour a community that struggled against the indignities of racism and tell the story of the former community.
Manager of the Africville Museum Juanita Peters said the museum not only tells the story of Africvillians and Black Nova Scotians but also reminds people to reflect on the decisions they make within their communities.
“We like to not just concentrate on the past. But consider how we bring people into the conversation today,” Peters said. “How do we make them understand that you also are going to be making some important decisions, not just for yourself, but maybe for your community in the future?”
The loss of a community
Records first show a Black presence in Africville in 1848, the majority of residents came from different black communities across Nova Scotia like North Preston and Hammonds Plains, according to Peters.
By the mid-20th century, Africville grew into a community of approximately 400 residents. Residents were self-sufficient, paid taxes and did not rely on government assistance.
The City of Halifax failed to provide Africville with much infrastructure, though they collected taxes from residents. Africville had limited access to electricity and went without paved roads and running water.
The city also designated Africville as an area for less desirable infrastructure. A railway line was built through the village, with several homes destroyed to make room for it. It was also home to a slaughterhouse, prison, human waste disposal pits and infectious disease hospital.
In the 1960s, white Halifax residents started calling Africville a “slum,” contributing to public acceptance of its destruction. Instead of providing Africville residents with proper infrastructure, the city said it wanted to build up industry and new infrastructure in the area of Africville and authorized the relocation of its residents in 1964.
Instead of providing Africville residents with proper infrastructure, Halifax City Council voted in 1964 to remove the “blighted housing and dilapidated structures in the Africville area.” Council approved the relocation of residents so they could build industry and new infrastructure in the name of “urban renewal.”
Homes in Africville were demolished as soon as they were vacated over the next five years. In the relocation process, Africville residents who had the deed to their land were given money equal to their property value and residents who did not were given $500. In Africville, properties were passed down through generations leaving many residents without deeds to their homes.
“It did happen during Canada’s centennial of celebrating being Canadian. 1967,” Peters said.
To former resident Nelson Carvery, Africville was a vibrant community that always felt like home.
“It was a great place to grow up and we played a lot of sports in the community,” said Carvery. “We were on the water every day… the older guys in the community that were two or three years older than me, they taught us how to swim…We’d catch fish, get mussels off the shore and cook them right there.”
“They came here because it was similar to the US. They were comfortable here, they could just sort of be their selves,” said Peters. “In Nova Scotia, sundown practices were still very much alive and well here, right up into the 70s,” she said.
Carvery’s father was a deacon at the Seaview United Baptist Church in Africville, considered by many to be the heart of the community until it was bulldozed in 1967.
“On Sundays, the church would be the meeting place for any community meetings,” said Wayne Adams, Carvery’s nephew, and the moderator of the Friends of Africville Facebook group.
“The church was the place where a lot of people would go for guidance, refuge, support and counselling,” he said.
“It was better than going to court, they would bring things to church, because the people who you’re talking to mean something to you,” said Peters. “The church had a much bigger role than most churches, even today. It was the educator, the soul searcher, the provider to the soul, the family connectors,” she said.
The Africville Museum is built as a replica of the former Baptist church, but, instead of pews, it now features audio-visual kiosks, photographs and belongings of former residents. It is a national historic site and its exhibits were curated by creative professionals who worked with community members to share their stories.
Some community members felt that honouring the former village with a museum wasn’t enough.
“There’s more people than not who say, this is not what we wanted. We didn’t want a museum inside of the church. We wanted our church back,” said Peters. “They wanted a place where they could have special services. Where they could celebrate things that were dear to them.”
Peters, who does not have any ancestors from Africville, is still committed to running the museum to serve the Africvillian diaspora and greater community. Over the summer, the museum hosted free yoga in the park and craft-making events.
“The land gives so much,” she said. “We most recently did the Africville audio walking tour. So that has different former residents and Africville telling stories about different places on the land.”
As for the future, Peters says that there are plans for the construction of a marina to facilitate a sailing school to make training more accessible, and an Africville interpretive center.
In 2002, Africville Park was declared a national historic site, and in 2004, a U.N. report stated that the treatment faced by Africvillans and the destruction of Africville was “deplorable.” Despite these gains, Africville and the Black Nova Scotian community still face similar challenges today.
There is no bus to Africville Road, there are no sidewalks. Juanita Peters has spoken to the city about making the park more accessible, to little avail.
“After two and a half years of meetings, Halifax Transit came back to me and said, we looked at it, but we couldn’t really put a bus on that route… because it would take a bus, five minutes off its route,” she said. “We did two big walk, bike and roll events in 2019 and 2020…to illustrate how very difficult it was to get to Africville if you didn’t have a vehicle or a bus…nothing happened.”
For Peters, these urban planning issues are at the crux of the message that the Africville Museum represents.
“When people arrived in this province, they arrived Black people, they arrived on a promise of freedom land provisions. Only after 400 years, did the Government of Nova Scotia acknowledge and admit that Blacks were never ever given that real free title lands,” she said.
Former residents and their descendants are still dealing with the effects of the Africville erasure.
In 2020, protests were held demanding reparations for the loss of Africville. In 2016, Nelson Carvery led a class action lawsuit against the City of Halifax for compensation. Cravery’s father, Aaron Cravery, was the last resident to leave Africville in 1970. Their cousin, Eddie Carvery, has been occupying part of former Africville in a trailer on and off since 1970.
“They took the land,” Nelson Carvery said. “ I don’t think they have the right to take the land and I have the documents that say the land belongs to the Carvery family.”