Museums and cultural centres hold keys from the past that can be used to unlock the present. As an important part of Nova Scotia’s tourism product, museums, and cultural centres promote economic growth through investment and regeneration, and provide a strong, positive emotional attachment for both visitors and non-visitors. No longer viewed as buildings that simply store objects, there is a sophisticated understanding that museums and cultural centres play an active part in deciphering the legacy of a culture and creating knowledge for, and about, a society.
Their role as the guardians of factual information and presentation of all sides of the story establishes museums and cultural centres with a unique position of being trusted. Care and preservation of heritage is strongly linked to pride and identity. Tangible pieces of collectively regarded heritage shed light on local traditions passed on from generation to generation. Preserving local heritage is crucial, particularly where industry and communities no longer exist. This purpose is important in its own right, but it also allows us to shape the future. Through museums and cultural centres we can understand where we are currently in our society, and it allows us to compare how we live now in comparison to past generations. Today’s guest blogger, Sunday Miller, tells a story that demonstrates another essential component provided by museums and cultural centres, that through the preservation of local heritage we can learn from past mistakes and make every effort to ensure that we do not repeat them.
Ms. Sunday Miller is the Executive Director of the Africville Heritage Trust Society (AHT). Africville was an African Nova Scotian community established in the 1700’s that was forcibly disbanded in the 1960’s. The spirit of this community lives on through its descendants and the heritage preserved by the Africville Heritage Trust through display at the former location of the Africville community. The Africville Heritage Trust is a not-for-profit organization managed by a volunteer Board of Directors. The AHT was established to manage the construction and operation of the Africville Memorial Project, starting with the construction of the replica Seaview Baptist Church, and later the Africville Interpretive Centre.
The Africville Heritage Trust museum is open on the following schedule:
(June – Oct) – Tues – Sun, 10am – 4pm
(Oct – June) – Tues – Fri, 10am – 4pm
Africville Museum and the Story of the Africville Community
Oral history suggests that some families of African descent were living on the shores of the Bedford Basin in the 1700s. These families may have been connected to the migration of the Black Loyalists from Birchtown to Halifax. This migration happened after the race riot that took place in Birchtown and it was from Halifax that approximately 3500 Black Loyalists left for Sierra Leone where they founded Freetown.
The initial major development of the area has been attributed to the Black Refugees who came to Nova Scotia as a result of the War of 1812. The first recorded deed was to William Arnold and William Brown in 1848. The refugees and their descendants developed this settlement and initially it consisted of a few homesteads which developed into a cohesive, self-sufficient community with all the socio-cultural infrastructures found in similar communities throughout Nova Scotia. Africville became a self-sufficient community that included a very active church, a post-office, a school and several stores. In the 17 and 1800’s the African Nova Scotian communities that were established in Nova Scotia were the only communities, outside of Africa, where Africans were allowed to stay free and were not forced back into slavery.
Unfortunately, Africville also became the location for a number of less than desirable public amenities, such as: the Rockhead Prison (1853); the Intercolonial Railway line (1855) now called the Canadian National Railway (CNR); the Infectious Diseases Hospital (1870); and the city dump (mid-1950s). The presence of these undesirable amenities placed in and next to Africville caused Africville to be deemed a slum. Furthermore, the residents of Africville, even though they paid municipal taxes, did not reap the benefit of municipal services such as water, paved roads or provision of sewerage, etc. that would help offset the undesirable public encroachments.
In the 60’s, due to the prevailing urban renewal philosophy of the time, the decision was made that the community of Africville was not an acceptable place for people to be living. Therefore, the Africville community was destroyed by the relocation of the Africville residents to various public housing projects across the city. This relocation began in 1964. The physical fabric of the community of Africville, including the Seaview United Baptist Church, was bulldozed, with the last building being demolished in 1970. By that time, approximately 400 people, comprising 80 families, had been relocated.
In 1983, the Africville Genealogy Society (AGS) was formed to improve, revive and reunite the existence of all former residents and descendants of Africville.
After several successful cultural initiatives aimed at commemorating the spirit of Africville, the AGS spearheaded a three-year strategic plan. Strategic priorities included reviving the spirit of Africville by revisiting plans to reconstruct the Seaview Church and to celebrate the history of Africville through the creation of an interpretive centre. During that process, it was determined that a new organization needed be established that would own and manage the church and interpretive centre. Thus the Africville Heritage Trust Society (AHT) was formed in 2010.
The Mission of the AHT is to keep alive the memory and spirit of the community of Africville through interpretation, education, and dialogue, in order that the history of the community and its people, and the lessons learned from their experiences, are passed on to current and future generations. This work will be accomplished through the activities of the Africville Museum.
The museum houses some artifacts that were salvaged from Africville as well as interpretive panels that tell the story of early Africans in Nova Scotia and the life of living in Africville. There are also audio/visual kiosks that contain comments from former residents of Africville, the perspective of the mayors of the 1960’s and the consultant that was hired to assist Halifax with its decision regarding the community. The apology given by Mayor Kelly can be viewed along with other audio visuals.
The importance of the Africville site is based on its historical and social justice learnings that can take place. Historical: in that it was one of the largest settlements of free Africans for many years. The people were totally self-sufficient and took pride in their self-sufficiency. They did not see themselves as victims but as a valuable part of their community that they had created in spite of the lack of support that they received from the city.
The Executive Director of the Africville Heritage Trust Society is Ms. Sunday Miller who is of Black Loyalist descent and was raised in Yarmouth Nova Scotia.
Introduction written by: Jennifer Falkenham