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Refusing to Forget

Former residents of Africville remember their history and fight for a better compensation deal

by Dalal Razzaq

You can't bury our history like your buried our community, says Denise Allen. Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, taken by Bob Brooks in Africville in 1965
You can't bury our history like your buried our community, says Denise Allen. Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, taken by Bob Brooks in Africville in 1965

A group of people with ties to Africville are filing an injunction to stop what they feel is an illegal compensation package.

Almost forty-two years after the last house in Africville was bulldozed to the ground in 1968, the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) has extended a public apology to the Nova Scotian Black community and former residents of Africville for what is now known as one of the most contentious relocation schemes in Nova Scotian history.

The apology came into effect after Halifax mayor Peter Kelly and Irvine Carvery, president of the African Genealogy Society, worked together to finalize a multi-government deal which includes a total of $3 million from the Halifax Regional Municipality, backed up with $1.5 million from the province and another $250,000 from Ottawa.

Two and a half hectares of land at Seaview Park will be allotted to the Africville Heritage Trust and re-named Africville.  Plans are in the woks to build a new Baptist church to replace the one torn down during the relocation. The HRM – run facility is intended to be an interpretive centre only.

Some people, including Reverend Rhonda Britten, a leader in the black community, have embraced this move as a historic moment and clear step forward for African Nova Scotians. “Victory has been won,” she said of the apology.

But not everyone is happy. Some say they were not consulted in the negotiations and are demanding that personal compensation be offered.

Denise Allen, a spokeswoman for those opposing the deal, says that the deal lacks transparency and validity.

“The African Genealogy Society had a very closed deal with the mayor. There is no paper trail of the settlement, nothing, except for that apology, but even that isn’t official documentation, it is just something that is posted on a website.  We had asked for the issue of individual compensation to be included in the discussion, but he [Irvine Carvery] said if they didn’t take individual compensation off the agenda, they [HRM] wouldn’t negotiate with us. 

“So Irvine just accepted it,” Allen says. “He is a victim of a system that has always told black people that we don’t deserve anything.”

The story of Africville remains a stain on Nova Scotia’s record. Years of racial discrimination and neglect left the tax-paying residents of Africville without even the most basic of services such as sewage, clean water or paved roads. Africville eventually became a prime location for the city of Halifax to locate its toxic industries, including a tannery and infectious diseases outlet from a nearby hospital.  This had serious health implications for the residents of Africville. Moreover, few residents were afforded legal title to their land and many were unable to pass their homes onto their children as a result. In the sixties, the Nova Scotia Government declared Africville a ‘slum’ and began the relocation of residents under the guise of social progressive change.

Despite these difficult living conditions, however, many who lived there remember Africville fondly as a vibrant community for which they still have strong emotional connections.

In early April, I was invited to attend a meeting held for those in opposition to the settlement deal. In attendance was Donald “Buzzy” Brown, Coleman, Nelson Carvery, John, Craig Vaub and Tony “West” Jeffirs, who were born and raised in Africville.

 “Africville was a very loving community,” Craig Vaub recalls. “The community was really tight. There was discipline for your kids.”

“Yeah,” Tony Jeffirs adds, “If your parents didn’t have time to look after you, your neighbours did. And they fed you too. It was like a village.”

Now fathers with their own children, many of those I spoke with feel that the reparations deal does not adequately do justice to what was lost to residents during the relocation process.

Vaub believes that the relocation of Africville has left a devastating mark on the African Nova Scotian community today.

“Now you have kids who grow up, and they have no identity. When you tear a community down, you tear families apart.  All the father figures are gone, so now you have young brothers with no identity, toting guns and getting involved in violence, and you know that they have no self worth.  If they hadn’t done what they did to Africville, I don’t think that this would be happening today”

Another group member, John, speaks passionately on why being resilient and fighting for a fair reparations deal is so important to him.

“Us being fathers and men, one day our kids will turn around and say, my dad didn’t have no backbone, he didn’t do anything... Africville is a root inside of me and I cry inside for it.  I remember when anybody in Africville said, ‘I want a cake,’ you bet your dollar they’d bake you a cake! We are fighting, loving people... we don’t give up”

Like Denise Allen, Nelson Carvery, who is a distant cousin of Irvine Carvery, feels that the settlement negotiations should have been much more transparent and inclusive.

“Irvine decided what was good for us without letting us know. They should have given us at least a 30 days notice, with detailed information on what they were planning to do, then they should have asked us to come and vote on it”.

Irvine Carvery did not respond to requests for an interview.

“It was a verbal thing submitted,” says Coleman. “This is what we consider to be an illegal vote.  They [HRM] got permission from the African Genealogy Society, but not us”.

“The settlement is for the system, it’s for tourism. It’s not for my kids. They’ve got to come to people who feel they were involved in Africville,” says Donald D “Buzzy” Brown, a proud father of 6 and owner of 2 Colored Guys – a successful silk-screening business in the North End of Halifax.  “That package is not for us, it’s for none of us.  That was Irvine Carvery hooked up with the system, he sold us out.”

When asked what the compensation deal should have looked like, Vaub answers, “That money would have better been spent on schools, they could have invested it for the future of our kids by putting it in an education fund or something.  Or we could put it into our neighbourhoods, where most of us live. So as far I’m concerned, it’s simple. Irvine needs to call another meeting.”

Part of moving forward and healing, according to Allen, is remembering rather than casting aside Africville’s history.

 “You have to understand history. Because up until 1957 our people were not even allowed to go to school.  That needs to be talked about,” says Allen.

She continues, “They don’t like history in Nova Scotia.  In his apology, I felt like Kelly was saying ‘You’ve got no history and the future is a blank slate.’ It’s like he was saying, ‘We are sorry but we don’t want to deal with your history anymore, so just bury it.’ Just like they had to bury our community.”

“Well, guess what?” Allen says; “that history, we have to learn from it – and what they did to us – well, you just can’t forget that.”

Allen and others who are in opposition to the deal are holding an Africville Legal Defence Fundraiser on April 17th.  They hope that the proceeds will help them to continue pushing for a better redress package and cover some of the legal fees.  The event is taking place at the New Old Mill Night Club at 200 Wyse Rd, Dartmouth and features local artists Cyndi Cain and her A-Cain band. Doors will open at 7pm until 2am. For further information, please contact Denise Allen at (902) 455-2985.
 


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