Africville: a community lost

In the summer, Irvine Carvery would wake up to the smell of burning cardboard in his Africville home.

Albert Sparks would be out burning the boxes his store’s products came in – and the young Carvery was excited.

“If I got up real quick and ran over, I could be in his company for a while,” Carvery remembered. It was the pull of community, the enjoyment in company, helping make life in Africville a shield against the racism in the province.

“It was like a cocoon, because once you were outside of Africville this was a very racist society,” said Carvery, president of the Africville Genealogy Society.

“So when you hit Africville it just seemed like ‘Wow, I’m home. I’m safe.’”

Carvery’s family lived in Africville for six generations – he was born in the community and lived there until his early teens, when the municipal government expropriated the community’s land on the shore of Bedford Basin.

Land-owning African Nova Scotians first established Africville in the mid-1800s – and since it’s beginning, it faced expropriation by the government.

Only six years after black Nova Scotians bought land in the area, a railway extension was placed through the community and several houses were destroyed. More land was taken in the 1912 and the 1940s for the railway.

By the 1960s, Africville had about 400 families. Although they paid taxes, there was no running water or paved roads. Over the years it had become the site of an open-pit dump, a fertilizer plant and a slaughterhouse.

Halifax council voted to start a process of urban renewal in Africville by removing the existing structures and relocating the residents.

The first houses were expropriated in 1964, and by 1970 the last house was demolished.

The land was subsequently turned into the Fairview Container Terminal, ramps for the MacKay Bridge, and Seaview Park.

Tony Smith is also a former resident of Africville. In 1968, he left the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children to live there with a foster family.

The family lived in an area called “Africville around the turn.” This area was largely preserved during the urban renewal in the 1960s. The house Smith lived in is still there. By the time Smith moved in, the core of the commu- nity was gone.

As a kid, Smith spent a lot of time playing in Africville.

“I always found it to be peaceful for me down there,” he said.

He used to fish from the rocks and play on an old tugboat; kids would boil periwinkles and mussels to eat; they went eel fishing at night and made bonfires; they picked blueberries, apples and built forts in the woods.

He spent a lot of time at the nearby city dump where he was collecting copper, aluminum, brass, bottles and batteries to sell to a scrap dealer.

“I had a lot of fun there,” Smith said. “To be quite honest, if I was allowed to dump dig today I would.”

Growing up “around the turn,” Smith heard many stories about the history of Africville and good times in the community. Black entertainer Duke Ellington and boxer Joe Louis spent time there.

Ellington’s father-in-law lived in Africville, and would often stay in the area. Louis once refereed a wrestling match in Halifax and visited Africville afterwards.

“When they’re done: ‘Where’s the black people at?’ So they go down to Africville, and they have parties and stuff like that,” Smith said. “There was always a sense of community,”

The church was an important part of Africville’s community. People would come from across the province to join in the church’s sunrise service, Carvery said, be- cause “that’s where the spirit is.” Doors were never locked in the community because “no one ever had a reason to lock their doors.”

But living in Africville could be difficult.

The houses were mostly wood-framed and poorly insulated; adults would go to the dump for supplies. The streets weren’t paved and there was no sewer or running water. Residents relied on outhouses and wells.

Not everyone had stable jobs. Some would sell scrap metal to make money. Smith said these dump diggers could make $300 to $400 a week. Others relied on seasonal or part-time work to get by. In 1958 – six years before the expropriation began – the average annual income of a family in Af- ricville was less than $1,000.

“In Africville, because we lived in a caring community, if my father had work this week or this month and my neighbour’s dad wasn’t working, when my mom went shopping she would buy extra groceries to help the family,” Carvery said.

“People in the community all would do that so that people could make it through the rough times.”

So for Smith, remembering the stories he heard in Africville, “the hardship is when they actually came and took the land.”

Some residents moved off their land voluntarily to sell their homes to the city and moved to houses in “Africville around the turn” and elsewhere, while others were forced out.

One man notably returned home from the hospital only to find his house had been demolished. Many residents ended up moving into public housing projects.

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Sometime between 1965 and 1967, Carvery’s family moved from his grandmother’s property to a house in North End Halifax.

“The real shame of the whole Africville question is what it did to the people – what it took away from the people,” Carvery said.

“We lost a generation of young people because they weren’t able to make adjustments to the traumatic change that took place.”

Carvery said he was young enough to adjust to the lifestyle outside of Africville, but older teenagers had a much more difficult transition – using drugs and alcohol to cope with the loss of support.

“They belonged,” Smith said.

“Then all of a sudden you’re put into this concrete mass … you’re taken away from the woods, picking your berries, kids out there playing baseball or football, going fishing, or going swimming.

“You took that community away.”