An archival shot of Africville.
Canada just loves to brag about how from 1840-1860, before the American Civil War, Nova Scotia was the last stop on the underground railroad. We even had national television propaganda showing happy slaves popping out of furniture and finding a new life in the Great White North. But not everyone knows what a shitty time some former African American slaves and their decendents had on the east coast. Not everyone knows about Africville.
Africville was a poor, black neighborhood in the North End of Halifax that was systematically destroyed by the city. The local government never provided Africville with basic amenities and services—such as water, electricity and snow plowing—and that continued up until the point the neighbourhood was demolished in 1964. Since the 1917 Halifax explosion, Halifax wanted to redevelop Africville for industry, which meant kicking out the poor, black people living in Africville. The city finally made their dreams come true. Despite the resilience of the locals, the city continued to do shitty things like building a hospital for diseased World War II soldiers, full of contagious viruses, nearby. After that, they put up a toxic waste dump. Their plan eventually worked and eventually drove residents right out of the area. What has happened since, is Eddie Carvery and his protest.
Eddie Carvery is a former resident of the area, and he's still protesting all of this crazy injustice. He told me the whole terrible and depressing story, and about his ongoing protest, on a cold Friday over the phone from his unheated trailer that has "Africville Protest" painted in big, red letters on its sides, parked three feet from the Bedford Basin, the former site of Africville. Today the land is a container pier, a bridge, some highways, some railroad track, and a park. Half a century ago, it was a bustling community.
Eddie in front of his protest trailer.
Eddie remembers: "The hospital would just dump their raw garbage on the dump—bloody body parts, blankets, and everything. We were subject to that. And then they would burn this dump every so often. There would be walls of fire and toxic smoke, and we used to run through that fire to get the metals before they melted because we scavenged off the dump. We had to. You had to do that to survive."
There were also the rats. Eddie estimates about a hundred thousand at any given time. The rat population grew to such a point where, if you came out at night with a flashlight, "It looked like the dump was alive. It looked like a rug."
When the rats began spreading into the white neighborhoods to the south, the city sent exterminators to douse the dump in rat poison. "We breathed it," Eddie asserts. "It was in the air, it was on our clothes. Now we're all dying of cancer."
When a decade of rat-infested toxic dump failed to cause a mass-exodus, Halifax conducted some studies to determine that the area was officially on the books as an uninhabitable slum. Despite outrage from residents, the city began their plan to level the neighborhood and relocate its people into public housing. While before they had owned their homes now, they would be paying rent to the city.
In 1964, after the city gave some compensation to people for their homes, demolition and relocation could begin. Houses were bulldozed with people still inside of them. The church was torn down as well. In 1969, the last resident had relinquished his home and Africville was gone.
"Africville wasn't a hallucination," Eddie says, "it was a real society within this society. And what they did was a slow genocide. They poisoned us. They forced us out of our homes. They created illiteracy. They're guilty of racism and genocide in the first degree. They're guilty and they know it."
This brings us to Eddie's protest. For the past 44 years, Eddie has been occupying the park in protest. Canadian history has written Africville out of the books. While it's unclear how much former residents have suffered from the toxins they breathed in while living in Africville, the neighbourhood's proximity to the toxic dump must have some residual side effects. Despite all of that negativity haunting the area's history, Eddie appears to be the only voice demanding that Africville not only be remembered, but also restored.
"This didn't happen in some other corner of the world," Eddie tells me. "This happened in Canada. It happened to Canadian people. No matter what color they are. They are not to be treated like that."
A map of Africville.
He doesn't picket government buildings or hand out flyers. He just hangs out and tries to stay warm in the winter. Despite it being freezing mid-winter, Eddie is still pretty positive, "It's really cold here, but that's cool! It's a good day to protest!"
After seeing the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and at the suggestion of his concerned mother, Eddie decided to return to Africville–or what was left of it–to clean up his act and demand justice. He has occupied the park ever since.
In its early years, Eddie says that the police would harass him in the middle of the night. He would often return to his camp to find it destroyed. On several occasions, he says, he had to run and hide in the woods at night when Haligonians wearing Nazi insignias shot at him. More recently, the city has seized and "lost" his trailer—twice.
Eddie has stuck it out through it all. However, forty-four years of protest have yielded jack shit for his cause. History has swept Africville under the rug. Even though the mayor issued an official apology a few years ago, there's an Africville commemorative sundial (which actually displays the wrong time) and a replica museum/church (that doesn't actually hold services), no substantial reparations have been made. Basically, every few years, Halifax throws Africville a couple of figurative bones while it continues to feast on the proverbial meat generated by industry.
All of that could change in the near future. Halifax has agreed to hear Eddie's outstanding grievances in court later this spring, but he has low expectations.
"The plaintiffs, us Africvillians going to court, are illiterate. We don't have no money. So I feel like I'm going into a kangaroo court. They know that we're not going to be prepared, and it will just be another vice that the city uses to close the books on what happened to the people in Africville."
Eddie will demand that former residents receive compensation for losing their homes and their community. He will demand that they receive a cut of the money coming in from the industry. He demands the reconstruction of Africville for its surviving people. He will demand a public inquiry into what effect the dump and the rat poison had on the long-term health of former residents.
If justice is not served, Eddie hopes to mobilize more Africvillians into civil disobedience. However, he adds: "Every time it comes to a confrontation or a showdown, the only one who stands up is me, and everyone else disappears."
Ultimately, all Eddie wants, and has wanted for the past forty-four years, is for Halifax to right its wrongs. He has no intention to ever abandon the Africville protest.
"I miss the community. I miss the people. We were one people. Wouldn't be nothing to see ten of us in one room at one time. It was a dear, warm spirit. You really felt it when you went into the church. It was a wonderful, warm feeling. Look, it's the most beautiful place in the world. Right here on the Bedford Basin. The sky gives you this sense of freedom. It was where I was born. I wasn't born in the hospital. I was born in Africville. I'm still in Africville."
Photographs of Eddie by Darrell Oake.
Archival photographs by Bob Brooks, from the Africville Relocation Report.
Special thanks to Jon Tattrie, who put me in touch with Eddie Carvery. He wrote a book about Eddie's life.
Follow Noah on Twitter: @NoahTavlin
More on racism: