February is Black History Month, more commonly referred to as African Heritage Month in Nova Scotia. Home to more than 50 historic African communities including Canada’s oldest and largest Black community – North Preston, Nova Scotia is widely considered the birthplace of Black culture and heritage in Canada.
The roots of these African settlements can be traced back to several waves of migration during the 18th and 19th centuries. Diverse groups such as the Black Loyalists, Jamaican Maroons, refugees of the War of 1812, and Caribbean immigrants established their presence across the East Coast province. Now, over 400 years later, the families of these settlers collectively form the vibrant African Nova Scotia community that exists today.
A significant and complex chapter in Halifax’s history is Africville, once a thriving community on the northern shore of Halifax Harbour. Despite being home to hundreds of individuals and families for over a century, Africville faced discrimination and neglect from the city. In the 1960s, Africville was demolished to make way for industrial development, forcibly relocating its residents and disbanding the close-knit community.
Music played a pivotal role in Africville’s identity. The Seaview African United Baptist Church, known as the heart of the community, was celebrated for its preachers and music. Joe Sealy, a Canadian jazz artist with roots in Halifax, emphasized the community’s connection to music writing in the notes of his album Africville Suite, “jazz, soul, blues, and gospel filled the homes of Africville, with not a single household without a piano or organ.”
Several musicians, including Sealy, have paid homage to Africville through their work. Sealy’s JUNO-winning album, Africville Suite, released in 1996 is dedicated to his father, who was born in the community. After moving to Montréal at the age of nine, his father dreamed of returning to Africville but was never able to. The album describes what was once a refuge for newly freed slaves from America and its tragic destruction.
“We will replace your misery with hope. Just sign the deal and leave.” And so schools have been separated and communities have been bulldozed and churches have turned me away.
– “Africville” lyrics by Joe Sealy
Maestro Fresh Wes, the 2024 Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee, has proudly called the East Coast home for many years. In 2008, he collaborated with Kaleb Simmonds on the song “Africville,” featured on the independent album Hate Crimes by the hip-hop group, Black Union. The powerful track sheds light on the historical struggles with anti-Black racism faced by the residents of the Nova Scotian community.
African Heritage Month is an important opportunity to acknowledge the deep and complex history of Africville and the local communities, while also celebrating the culture, achievements, and contributions of people of African descent in Nova Scotia. Throughout the month, Nova Scotia, particularly the region of Halifax, comes alive with educational initiatives, cultural events, and special musical performances which highlight the enduring legacy of local African heritage.
Various events are scheduled across the city which are highlighted by the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia with additional programming at the Halifax Public Libraries and Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Notable upcoming events include the African Heritage Month Light Show at Grafton Park, the Halifax Black Film Festival from February 23 to 26, and the African Heritage Month Gala on February 24, 2024.
For those interested in exploring the rich history of Africville firsthand, a visit to the northern tip of the Halifax Peninsula provides insight into the African Nova Scotian settlement that stood for over 100 years. Now a memorial park and museum, the site today provides an opportunity to learn about the resilience of African Nova Scotians and their long history in the province.