Despite the prevalent perception of Africville as a “slum” populated by “squatters”, residents paid taxes, had meaningful employment, tended their gardens, raised their children and took pride in their homes, however modest. Those who lived there recall a community of brightly painted houses where neighbour helped neighbour.
Africville, with its community-built and operated school (circa 1883), a church (circa 1849, and later rebuilt in 1916)—the community’s spiritual and social centre— and a post office, thrived in spite of nearly insurmountable challenges. Despite paying municipal taxes and years of petition, residents lived without the services taken for granted by others, including water, sewage, paved roads, police, ambulance and fire truck service.
Industrialization soon began to encroach on the community as railway after railway started running through the area (circa 1854). Facilities unwanted by other communities such as a prison, a slaughterhouse, and an infectious disease hospital were located in and around Africville. While other parts of the city received investments to modernize and renew, the isolated community of Africville was left to ruin. In 1958, Africville earned the dubious distinction of being officially labeled a “slum”, when the city moved the town dump (circa 1955) to an area just a stone’s throw to the church and people’s homes.
As early as 1945, discussions were being held regarding the removal of Africville. In 1948 funds were approved for sewer services but never installed. Residents relied upon local springs that were long since contaminated by the railway and surrounding industrial waste. From the prison to the railways, each new fixture meant the expropriation of hard-earned land from those who were the rightful owners. The final result of over 150 years of unequal opportunity arrived in 1962, when Halifax City Council used the threat of expropriation to negotiate the purchase of their land. Between 1964 and 1970, residents were removed with many families being placed in public housing projects. Homes were demolished and the church bulldozed in the middle of the night. The means of displacement served as a metaphor for how the community of Africville was regarded: the city moved some of the the residents’ belongings in municipal dump trucks.
In 1969, the people of Africville began seeking redress with the formation of the Africville Action Committee to reunite the people. In 1983, the Africville Genealogy Society was formed and in 1985, the society began to seek recompense from the city of Halifax for the destruction of the Africville community. In 2010, after a long fight, a settlement was finally reached with the city which included 2.5 acres of land to serve for the reconstruction of the church, $3 million toward the construction costs and a formal public apology by Mayor Peter Kelly.
In an emotional and uplifting ceremony that drew hundreds of people, the replica of Seaview Church was officially opened in the fall of 2011. The ribbon was cut by Bertha Mantley, who at 91 is one of the oldest surviving resident. The official launch of the exhibits housed within the church was held in July, 2012, during the annual Africville Reunion weekend.
The memory and the spirit of the Africville community, which began on the shores of the Bedford Basin nearly two centuries ago, along with its heritage and rich history, remains alive. The story of Africville continues. It is the story of faith and of the strength of community, family and home. And it is universal.