Africville

 

(Update: Since this moment was written but still four decades after the eviction the City of Halifax has made a formal apology, and “according to one published report, it includes a $3-million payout and about one hectare of municipal land. There is no money for individuals or families… the federal government also announced $250,000 for the Africville Heritage Trust, which will help design a museum and a replica of the community’s church.” (1))

Used with permission from author

Nelson, Jennifer. (2000). The Space of Africville: Creating, Regulating and Remembering the Urban ‘Slum.’ Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 15 (2) pp 163-185.

Throughout the community’s approximately 120-year history, Halifax’s development, particularly in the industrial and disease- and waste-management sectors, equaled a series of encroachments on Africville land. In addition to railway lines, which required the destruction of several Africville buildings, an oil plant storage facility, a bone mill and a slaughterhouse were built. Encircling these establishments were a leather tanning plant, a tar factory, another slaughterhouse and a foundry. Shortly after the settlement of Africville, the city established Rockhead Prison on the overlooking hillside; in about twenty years, the city’s infectious diseases hospital was placed on this hill, and the open city dump located about one and a half miles away. Later construction of railway lines to different factories required further dislocation of Africville families. Destruction of many surrounding industries following the Halifax Explosion of 1917 resulted in new, similar facilities being built in their places. For decades, this waterfront region was the target of much discussion regarding expropriation for industrial expansion by the City of Halifax, a plan which became solidified in the 1947 rezoning of the city. In the early 1950s, the city dump was moved directly onto Africville land – 350 feet from the westernmost home – and two years later, the city placed an incinerator only 50 yards beyond the south border of Africville.

Throughout Africville’s existence, building permits to improve homes were increasingly difficult to obtain from the city government. Requests for water lines and sewerage which would bring sanitation and quality of life closer to the standards for the rest of the city were refused. Police and fire protection and garbage collection on par with such services received by the rest of Halifax were denied. Living conditions were ironically described by city officials as intolerable and unsanitary – in short, as justification for the inevitable dismantling of the community and eviction of its 400 residents. Discussion of this project remained common, until finally, in the 1960s, the threat became a more serious reality. By the end of the decade, despite avid resistance and organization on the part of Africville residents themselves and in concert with other community groups, Africville had been expropriated by the City of Halifax for the purposes of industrial development on the lands, as well as for the alleged benefits of “slum clearance” and “relocation” of the residents.’ (3)

Due to an informal system of handing down properties and housing within families and between in-laws over the years, many residents were unable to prove legal title to their land; thus, they had little recourse when faced with the proposition to sell or be simply evicted. Due to historical social and economic conditions, residents had literally no formal community leadership which would be seen as legitimate political representation, and little access to the legal and bureaucratic bargaining tools of the municipality. Most were forced to accept the city’s small compensation, or to settle for low prices offered for homes they had not been permitted to maintain and improve, located in what was defined as the slum by the garbage dump. (4) In a seeming mockery, when moving companies refused service, city garbage trucks which had never been employed in service of Africville were sent to carry away the residents’ belongings.

As the last Africville home was bulldozed in 1970, former residents adjusted to living, in many cases, in public housing facilities, struggling to pay rent for the first time in their lives, while a few afforded their own homes, still to suffer financial difficulties in the near future. Separated from friends, family and their former strong sense of community, many Africvilleans were to face the unsurprising insufficiency of welfare dollars and of the meager $500 compensation they had received – defined as a “moral claim” given through the benevolence of the City.

(1)CBC News. 23, February, 2010. Retrieved February 16, 2012 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2010/02/23/ns-africville-halifax-council.html
(2)For early historical information I have relied on: Africville Genealogical Society, eds. The Spirit of Africville (Halifax: Formac, 1992); D. H. Clairmont & D.W. Magill, Africville Relocation Report. (Halifax: Institute of Public Affairs, Dalhousie University, 1971) [hereinafter Africville Relocation Report.]; D. H. Clairmont & D.W. Magill, Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974); D.H. Clairmont & D.W. Magill, Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community, 3′” ed. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999); F. Henry, Forgotten Canadians: The Blacks of Nova Scotia (Don Mills, Ontario: Longman Canada Limited, 1973). Of particular interest to a critical geographical race analysis is the manner in which the control of space and the control of bodies through control of space become tools for defining a community’s physical and
(3) For documentation of relocation, see Clairmont & Magill; Africville Genealogical Society, supra note (2).
(4) Letter of R.J. Britton, Director of Social Planning for the City of Halifax, to Halifax City Council (28 October, 1994). Housing purchase prices are listed in this letter.The amounts city council claims to have paid are seen as inaccurate by some Africville activists with whom I have spoken. There have been accusations of bribery, in which city officials are alleged to have offered residents suitcases of cash  in exchange for their eviction. See J. Robson, “Last Africville Resident” The [Halifax] Mail Star (12 January 1970) 5.

 

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