Africville, Nova Scotia, Canada, the original Eastern Atlantic settlement of the country, has been internationally famous since the Denise Allen speech at the Non-Governmental Organization portion of the World Conference Against Racism, Intolerance, Xenophobia and Other Forms of Discrimination in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. There, she introduced a large audience to the narrative of the broken promises and violent removal of people from land given to them by the British government back in 1781-82. As a consequence of that speech and subsequent meetings, the United Nations High Commission of Human Rights sent in an investigator to find out what really happened.

That investigator eventually recommended, in 2004, that because of its documented ill-treatment of the residents, expropriation of their land and community firebombing of Africville, Canada should pay reparations to those residents and their immediate descendants.

That’s when things got really messy.

Africville was an approximately 100-acre tract of prime land in the north end of the city of Halifax. The area had been occupied since the Black Loyalists had been transported by the British navy to the site, as a reward for their help in fighting against the American patriots in the War of independence, 1777-1783. These were some of the skilled Blacks who were not allowed to carry guns and join Washington’s Continental Army, and who were promised land in Canada and freedom from slavery as a reward for fighting for the British Redcoats. This population multiplied during and after the War of 1812, when the Black Refugees, some of whom had fought as British regulars again against Americans, and who were promised freedom from slavery, were transported to the site.

In 1848, William Brown and William Arnold, two Black men, registered the first documented property deeds for Black residents in Africville, and are regarded as the two founding members of what became the modern Africville community. Together, they bought 16, 5-acre lots for settlement.

From that 19th century watershed, Africville, whose name came from a French explorer who found Blacks living in an Atlantic seaboard area of Canada sometime in the 16th or 17th century (calling it Afriq Ville), the community grew into a self-reliant, independent group of approximately 80 families and 400 residents. It was prevented from expanding into a larger population by the relentless denial of city services like running water, indoor plumbing, building permits, garbage collection, police and fire services, etc. The city of Halifax, of which Africville was a part, consistently behaved as if it intended Africville to be rendered into a shantytown slum. So, out of necessity, the Africville residents built their own church, a school, post office, a general store, and light industry and crafts. The city of Halifax kept demanding taxes from Africville residents, and those taxes kept getting paid, but virtually no city services were ever provided.

In 1964, after a series of preliminary actions to try to scare the residents off, including establishing two toxic waste dumps within 100 or so yards of occupied homes, the City Development Agency summarily ordered a bulldozing and burning of Africville homes and facilities, and a complete removal of Africville citizens. Those who could produce a legal property deed were slightly compensated, and those who could not were given $500 dollars. They were all placed in public housing projects designated by the city. Every year since 1986, there has been a ‘Never Forget Africville’ festival during late July in the Seaview Memorial Park (erected in a 5-acre remnant of Africville) to commemorate that tragedy, and the area was designated a Canadian historic site in 2002.

So would have rested the issue–another dose of the consistent Black man’s burden of White racism and disrespect–had not some irate residents taken to the media. The Allen speech, radio interviews, U.N. requests and the like got the investigation done by the agency’s traveling rapporteur, Diene Diene, and his reparations recommendation. His report was devastatingly explicit regarding Canada’s culpability.

Enter Mr. Irvine Carvery, the long-time head of the Africville Genealogical Society (AGS), and an advocate for reparations for the displaced former residents. He was the chief negotiator for Africville, and, reportedly, when a straightforward offer of direct monetary compensation for surviving Africville citizens and their immediate descendants was made in February 2010, by the city of Halifax, his answer, according to some of those present, was ‘we don’t need money, we need monuments.’

Subsequently, a $3 million dollar offer to build a replica of the Africville United Baptist Church that the city had razed, and an all-purpose community center, both in Seaview Memorial Park, was settled on and signed by Mr. Carvery in the name of Africville survivors. The church replica is currently being built, however a quiet controversy and grumbling from many of the former residents persists, and at least two lawsuits by Africville citizens against the agreement are pending. Essentially, there is a challenge to the legality of the AGS speaking for all of Africville, and the truth absence of any community meetings agreeing to the settlement.

During my visit to the area, the undertone of half celebration, half anger was palpable, and a number of otherwise very, very friendly folk made sure I heard “the real story” of Africville, and how they had been ripped off by their own.

It seems across the globe, justice and fairness, although still very worthy goals, remain amorphous, messy and exasperating to achieve. Good luck, Africville. You deserve the best.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). It is the step-parent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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