Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil squints into the sunlight on Sunday afternoon at Seaview Memorial Park in Halifax. Glancing down at his speech on the podium, he purses his lips towards three thin black microphones, preparing to speak.
“A Liberal government will recognize the memory and spirit of Africville by restoring the Seaview Baptist Church and by creating an interpretive centre on the site,” McNeil reads.
Irvine Carvery, watching nearby from behind the cameras, has heard it all before. Politicians have promised to help the Africville Genealogy Society President so many times that when he tries to recall specific dates, or even years, he can’t be sure.
McNeil came late to Carvery’s long awaited project: the resurrection of his community’s church. When Nova Scotia’s provincial election was called for June 9, Carvery acted quickly. He garnered the support of the province’s New Democrats first and the Conservatives soon after. The former Africville resident does not endorse any of the three parties.
So when the Liberal Leader spouted his vow of $2.2 million over four years, Carvery thought: “show me”.
Carvery is 57 years young – a born optimist, he often says. The wrinkles on the outside corners of his eyes are the topographical evidence of how often he smiles.
“We still remain at the whims of government,” he laughed during a casual coffee shop chat three weeks before McNeil’s announcement. “As always.”
But when asked to describe the City of Halifax’s actions in the 1960s toward the village where he grew up, the corners of Carvery’s mouth turn down.
“It was a form of genocide and it’s cultural genocide, which can be – in my opinion – more devastating,” he said, adding that he does not mean to trivialize historically recognized genocides. “It was race based; it was because we were black, because we were poor.”
Back in the early 1960s, his community was considered a black ghetto and a blight besmirching the great City of Halifax; at least, those were the words that appeared abundantly in newspapers at the time. This mentality, mixed with then popular ideas of “social integration” and “urban renewal”, provided the catalyst for the municipal government to eradicate the villagers’ homes, businesses and church. City workers bulldozed the 130-year-old Baptist church without warning one night in 1967.
Once, the church was a popular gathering place that overflowed on Christmas so that many worshipers had to pray outside. Over Easter weekend every year, black and white people united in the basement along pews that sat 150 people.
Carvery talked at length about his Africville memories, but one of his favourite stories to tell happened years after the relocation project, at Mount Saint Vincent University in 1989.
Gus Wedderburn co-Chaired Halifax’s Human Rights Advisory Committee during the 1960s. He recommended the City should relocate the villagers. Though he didn’t consult Africville residents, he honestly believed it was the right move.
During a conference as part of the exhibit, someone asked Wedderburn why he made the decision. He held up the cover of a book called “Remember Africville” that showed a garden of red blossoms in the sunshine with village houses in the background.
“I did not see the flowers,” Carvery said, repeating Wedderburn’s words. “I did not see the flowers. And he said that several times. And that’s what happens when you destroy a culture. All these flowers are gone.”
Carvery hopes to re-grow those metaphorical flowers in the diluted community by rebuilding the church. He’s hoped for years.
The champion for Africville was 53 in July 2005 when he attended the 23rd annual Africville reunion at Seaview Park under the shelter of a circular white tent.
“Genealogy Society President Irvine Carvery said his group is now putting together a business plan for the new church, which could be under construction by spring 2006,” The Daily News reported.
But some community members said they were fearful that original Africville residents would not see the church completed within their lifetimes.
“We’ll hold out guarded optimism,” Carvery told reporters.
Carvery was 50 in July 2002 when he sang O Canada during a ceremony at Seaview Memorial Park. Sheila Copps declared the park a national historic site that summer day and unveiled a dorsal fin shaped memorial plaque. She announced that all three levels of government had met to discuss rebuilding the Seaview Baptist Church. She promised “more than symbolic support in the future,” The Chronicle Herald reported.
The Genealogy Society President told the media he hoped an agreement could be reached by fall 2002.
Carvery was 45 in 1996 when City officials arrived at Seaview Memorial Park in the spring to survey the site in preparation for church construction. On April 4 that year, he lead the Genealogy Society to file a 13-page lawsuit against the City of Halifax demanding fair compensation, an apology and reconstruction of the demolished church.
The city responded with a “demand for particulars” asking former Africville residents to prove they were wronged.
A noticeably less optimistic Carvery had just celebrated his 44th birthday in September 1995 when The North End News reported he was frustrated by “foot dragging” at all levels of government.
“The church would serve as a living memorial to the people of Africville,” he said. “Black people have contributed to the building of this country and this city and this province; and yet if we were to disappear, what would mark our presence? Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Carvery was 42 in August 1994 when he told The Daily News, “next year’s annual Africville reunion will take place in the shadow of a rebuilt Seaview United Baptist Church. Next summer we’ll hold a memorial service inside the church.”
The paper reported that Supply and Services Minister Wayne Adams had already promised to contribute $200,000 to the project.
Carvery said he anticipated “no problems” with the City of Halifax.
In February 1992 he was 41 when he told the North End News that the Africville community could expect to see their church resurrected by the spring of 1993. Carvery had already spoken to an architect. The mayor of the day endorsed the project and Carvery “found the province surprisingly agreeable,” reporter Shaune MacKinlay wrote. Later that year, Martin Luther King III attended a ground breaking ceremony at Seaview Memorial Park.
In 1991 –17 years before he watched Stephen McNeil announce the Liberal Party’s funding plans – Carvery was 40. That year he watched Deputy Premier Tom McInnis announce that a replica of the Seaview Baptist Church would be built.
On July 27, 1987, the former residents of Africville, their children and grandchildren, sought shelter from the rain under a green canvas tent during the community’s reunion festivities at Seaview Park. Carvery, 36, braved the storm.
“There was a lot of duress,” he said about city officials who moved him out of his home. “They were saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to give up your home because the city is going to expropriate your land. We’ll give you this, and if you don’t take it, we’ll take your house anyway. While you’re thinking about it, this bulldozer comes in and mows down the house next to you. That’s pretty strong stuff.”
It was 1967 and Carvery was 13 when the city forced his family to move out of his home in Africville.
“Cultural genocides can never be replaced,” Carvery said while wrapping his hands around a warm mug of coffee. “We have to do everything possible to protect culture, because culture really to me, it’s who we are. It grounds us. It’s the road map to the future.”
Now Carvery says he hopes to see an agreement in place about the church and interpretive centre by Christmas.
“You can never grow the flowers back, but the interpretive centre, if done right, will help grow new flowers.”
In another two years, he says, the church should be standing in Seaview Park. But he knows that doesn’t mean it will be.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed.”