Three years ago, Maclean’s reported the first stirrings of concern about the plight of the Negro in Halifax and its ghetto suburb of Africville. The magazine then reported Ontario lawyer Alan Borovoy’s attempts to organize a civil-rights movement in Halifax. We revisited Africville recently, and this is a report on what has happened there in those three years
HALIFAX CITY COUNCIL was thunderstruck. The city had been accused, not without justification, of neglecting the Negro slum of Africville for more than one hundred and fifty years. Now, council had made the big decision to raze Africville and move its three hundred and fifty residents into public housing or alternative accommodation in other parts of town. Having made the decision, not without prodding from outside reporters and an imported Ontario civil-rights worker, the city sat back to receive the gratitude of the Negro. Instead, its sudden generosity was greeted with suspicion and a reluctance to move.
The aldermanic surprise at Africville’s reaction was due to a total lack of communication between the two groups. For years, no one had seriously bothered to find out what Negroes were thinking, and Africville residents had a strong sense that white Halifax had no sincere interest in their welfare.
“There have been a thousand wrongs and no rights,” says Negro resident Leon Steede. He points out that other parts of the city, even slum areas, have garbage disposal, paved roads and sewers. While Africville residents are only too familiar with the garbage trucks rumbling dustily by their homes over rutted unpaved roads to get to the nearby city dump which is a part of the Africville environment, the trucks never stop. Residents, instead, must burn what they can and once a year band together to hire trucks to haul away the garbage at their own expense. Few can afford it.
Also, it is not quite fair to say that Africville has been
totally without sewers. Many years ago, Steede remembers, civic officials put in a sewer — which drained to the surface plunk in the middle of Africville. The sewage came from the communicable-disease ward in the hospital on the “white” side of the hill. (Civic health officials have actually developed a theory that the residents of this scattered Negro hillside community at the northern tip of Halifax, survive because they have acquired an immunity to typhoid, a lethal pollution that saturates their soil.) As an indication of the long-evolved Negro apathy, there were no protests over the incredible indignity of the draining sewer.
Much the same thing happened in 1957, when the city expropriated fifteen homes in the ghetto for industrial development. No effort was made on the part of Negro occupants and owners to get compensation — many hadn’t even read the expropriation notice they were sent in the mail and no one explained to the residents that even if they didn’t have actual title, they might possess squatter’s rights.
One abiding problem in Africville is determining ownership. Civic lawyers, attempting to trace titles, were unable to confirm the legend that the land was a gift from the Crown to a slave named William Brown in the 1800s. Clear title can be proved in only about fifteen cases, with the title to the remaining sixty properties confused and jumbled as, over the years, they were informally passed from friend to friend or relative to relative. A civic report on ownership concludes: “Title to the Africville properties is in a chaotic state. While ownership of a sort could be proved in most instances, the expense of proving such title might be more than the property was worth.”
Civic offers of five hundred dollars compensation where no title existed and where the city had no legal duty to compensate, were scorned by the Negroes who were so suspicious of the underlying motive behind the offer, they felt it preferable to stay in Africville rather than move into other parts of the city. continued on page 36
continued from page 16
The Africville-Halifax impasse is not, however, total. A liaison group, the twenty-five-member biracial Human Rights Advisory Committee, was formed about three years ago to work for a fair deal for the Negroes. In addition, the province and city have jointly assigned Peter MacDonald, a white social worker, to work full time at easing the Negroes out of Africville.
Few residents of Africville serve on committees. Fewer of the wellto-do local Negroes, some of whom were raised in Africville, are lending active support to the Negro movement. “The well-to-dos have a vested interest in their own success,” says Jamaicaborn schoolteacher Gus Wedderburn.
Wedderburn, who teaches mathematics and science at a mixed Halifax junior high school, and the Rev. Charles Coleman, pastor at the Africville Baptist church, are at the forefront of the recent push for Negro advancement. Both men fill their evenings with speeches and committee work and are deeply involved with the Nova Scotia Association For The Advancement Of Colored People (no direct relationship with the NAACP in the United States). Coleman, who succeeded the less militant Rev. W. P. Oliver as pastor, is so active he’s been described as anti-white. “I’m not anti-white,” he says, “but pro-Negro. I want to create a climate of freedom, to bring down that heavy cloud which says you are limited in opportunity. Ignorant though you may be, there must still be dignity and respect for your freedoms. Nobody has a right to push you around — there must be recognition that the people have a right to speak out even when they’re wrong.”
The Negro movement under Oliver was more church-oriented than it is today, and Jack McAndrew. a white member of the biracial committee (whose interest in the Negro problem is heightened by the fact that he and his wife have an adopted Negro child), contends that this church emphasis tends to discourage rank - and - file Negro participation. Yet the church is still strong: Wedderburn says another reason the Negroes wish to stay in Africville is that they’ll lose their community church by moving.
It took visits from the outside press
to focus Halifax attention on the plight of the Negroes. The local press previously had preferred to look in another direction. This is still partially true today. Even with the new climate of concern and helpfulness, Africville resident Leon Steede claims the local papers will put a Halifax fist fight in a paragraph by the want ads but give a similar fight in Africville headlines. In one recent case, the Halifax papers neglected to report a Wedderburn chargé that documented a case of discrimination by a school official in nearby Dartmouth — but next day one paper carried a denial of the charge. When Dartmouth city council passed a resolution declaring itself against discrimination, that made headlines.
The Negroes are now closer to having a lobby in city council than ever before. Yet possessing a voice does not cure the lack of jobs — or the lack of skills and education required for a better-than-laboring occupation. Progress is slowly being made. Adulteducation courses were held at night last winter. About fifteen people started the grades seven, eight and nine courses. Only eight finished, but Harry Carter, one of the graduates, says now that three of the eight hold potentially steady jobs and two others are filling out job applications. MacDonald attributes the high rate of dropouts to the lack of employment opportunities.
Part of the unemployment picture, totally unrelated to race, can be tied to the somewhat depressed economy of Nova Scotia. Teacher Gus Wed-
derburn claims, in addition, that Negroes get easily discouraged and aren’t persistent enough in their search for employment. Much of the socalled discrimination on the part of store owners — their reluctance and in some cases refusal to hire Negroes — can be put down to fear that whites may stop patronizing their stores.
One area of widespread bitterness lies in the apprenticeship programs of trade unions. Negroes claim they are barred from these programs, cannot get training and end up unemployed.
Despite poor living conditions in Africville, where the average yearly family income is fifteen hundred dollars. the Negroes have developed, over the years, a will to survive together. According to a 1963 survey by University of Toronto sociologist Dr. Albert Rose, the residents of Africville “are a proud people who go to great lengths to remain independent and ask for financial assistance as a last resort.” When anyone is sick, there’s a friend to help; when a man loses his job. others give him food.
The economic facts of the proposed move don’t look good to the Negroes. For the first time in their lives, many who have been squatters will have to pay rent. Many will have to swallow their pride and accept subsidized housing from the city whose officials they mistrust. Those who refuse to go into public housing may not be able to afford a home, and will be forced into rooms. Many, after years of community support to avoid going on welfare, will have to rely on their monthly cheques from the city’s welfare department to get by.
However, mixed with this strong community spirit, there is an intense man-to-man suspicion, according to Leon Steede. As a partial result of this, Africville has never spoken to city authorities with a united voice.
The city’s basic philosophy behind the relocation is to integrate the Negroes with the whites of Halifax and other Negroes living in the centre of town. But these aims are frustrated by Negro anxiety that they will encounter discrimination by moving into a white area. “Do you think 1 want my kids to come home beaten?” Harry Carter asks. His fears may be unfounded, judging by a test conducted by the Human Rights Advisory Committee. A Negro couple was assigned to attempt to rent an apartment in buildings where rents range between a hundred and a hundred and twenty-five dollars. Of sixteen landlords approached, there was not one case of discrimination. In fact, the Negro conducting the survey said he and his wife were warmly welcomed.
The results surprised the committee. But they were interpreted in much the same cynical way some Negroes look at the alleged freedom of movement they possess in the city. Says Leon Steede, “In the southern United States they tell you you can’t go places. Here you can be served at any good restaurant or hotel, but you can’t earn enough money to go there.” Another committee member put it this way: “Renting that high, they can’t afford to discriminate, and besides there is no danger of a flock of Negroes being able to afford that rent. People don't really mind just one black neighbor.”
Some, like Leon Steede, can’t see why the city can’t renovate Africville. City officials reply that the cost would be prohibitive — about eight hundred thousand dollars — and, what’s more, they have adopted a policy that the Negroes must desegregate. There's another consideration: part of Africville is needed for a roadway, part will be used for industrial development, and a tiny section will be left for housing. But because of the vagueness of these plans and
the pressure to get the Negroes out by December 1966, many Negroes “feel that the city is being manipulated by large business to victimize them,” Pastor Coleman says. The Negroes believe there are cases in central Halifax where homes are expropriated by the city one day for three thousand dollars and sold to a developer the next for double that amount. They also believe all the current rumors circulating in the city, that the shoreside land they occupy
will be immensely valuable one day.
The eventual cost of Africville to the city, not including relocation assistance, is estimated at seventy thousand dollars. All persons who cannot prove title to their land — about forty-five of the sixty families — will receive at least five hundred dollars compensation from the city, though it isn't obligated to give them a cent. It is also compensating those who live in the houses which were expropriated in 1957. Where owner-
ship exists, the city has been paying more than the appraised value for houses and land.
So far, less than ten percent of the total population has been moved. And a recent statement by civic welfare director H. B. Jones that Africvillers were being moved into worse housing in the city than they had in Africville has reinforced the Negro reluctance.
In his report on the Africville situation, University of Toronto sociologist Dr. Albert Rose has described it as more than a housing problem; it is,
he implied, a unique welfare problem: “This is the first time in a quarter century of slum clearance, public housing and redevelopment activity in North America, that the removal of a severely blighted area will take away from a large proportion of the residents, not merely their housing and sense of community, but their employment and means of livelihood as well — in this case scavenging on the adjacent city rubbish disposal area.” Anyone who has seen Africville, talked to the residents and officials
of Halifax, must wonder whether the Negroes will co-operate with the Halifax program. To do this, advisory committee members believe, more men from Africville must participate in decisions. The biggest test would come when Africville Negroes — and the committee was hoping there would be more present than Leon Steede and Harry Carter — were to go, for the first time, before city council with an informal community brief. They were going to ask the city to oil Africville’s dusty roads. And collect its garbage. ★
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