Halifax's Africville Museum: a reflection of an oppressed community

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HALIFAX - Nestled on the edge of the Bedford Basin is a small wooden church — a replica that represents the survival of a once-thriving African Nova Scotian community that endured years of racism from the city that encompasses it.

The Seaview African United Baptist Church was once the heart of Africville, but was abruptly demolished in the 1960s by the city of Halifax to make way for new development.

Now, the pale yellow, red roofed replica church in Halifax's north end serves as an exhibition of the community's trials and tribulations over the past 150 years.

While a little off the typical tourist track in Halifax, the Africville Heritage Trust Museum tells the largely untold story of the oppressed village, said Tracey McCallum, assistant to the museum's executive director.

"It's an extremely important and rich part of Halifax's history, but it's kind of like, 'the secret,' " McCallum said in a recent interview at the museum. "Well, we're here to talk about it. It's an inspiring story."

During the mid-19th century, the church acted as an epicentre for the hundreds of families living on the banks of the basin, some of whom could trace their roots there back to the 1700s.

But during the mid-1900s, Africville became a dumping ground for unwanted public facilities — a prison, a landfill and an infectious disease hospital to name a few — in the hopes of driving the self-sustaining community away, said McCallum.

The village — its houses, post office, shops and iconic church — were eventually destroyed.

The city argued the dislocation would make way for the A. Murray MacKay Bridge and a container pier, but a swath of grass and brush where parts of the community once stood remains untouched by the so-called urban expansion, said McCallum.

"They were a community and they were tight knit," she said below a salvaged sign inscribed with the phrase "God is Love."

"What was done to them was an atrocity and it was right here in the city of Halifax."

In 2010, Africville received an apology for the destruction of the community from then-mayor Peter Kelly, which was backed by the allocation of land and $3 million to rebuild the church.

About a year later, the museum officially opened and has since welcomed school groups and tourists from as far away as California, eager to hear the community's story of oppression.

The centre features a number of artifacts salvaged from the dislocation. Several colourful marbles enclosed in a glass case sit near a wooden pulpit from the original church.

Nearby is a sign that reads "Please boil this water before drinking and eating." Although the residents paid taxes, they never received water services from the city, McCallum explained.

Visitors can also hear stories from former Africville residents on one of several interactive screens.

One of those residents, 67-year-old Eddie Carvery, still lives on the shores outside of the museum in protest of the dislocation and occasionally assists workers with tours, offering a unique first-hand account of the village's history, said McCallum.

"He loves talking to kids," she said as Carvery's dog barked in the distance. "He's definitely a big part of our museum."

McCallum said the replica church is only the beginning of a larger project that will eventually see the construction of an interpretive centre and a walking tour throughout the area.

"We have a lot of great ideas, but at this point we're just beginning, so that's a few years down the road."


If You Go...

The Africville Museum, located at 5795 Africville Road, is open from May 15 to Oct. 31, from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. From Nov. 1 to May 14, it is open Tuesday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission is $2 for students, $3 for seniors and $3.50 for adults. Children under the age of five visit for free.

Africville Museum: http://africvillemuseum.org/

Africville: http://www.africville.ca/

The Hermit of Africville: the biography of Eddie Carvery http://www.jontattrie.ca/africville/

Organizations: Africville Museum, African United Baptist Church, Africville Heritage Trust Museum

Geographic location: Halifax, California, Seaview 5795 Africville Road

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