Alternativa Latinoamericana
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Alberta, Noviembre/November 2009
ALTERNATIVA Latinoamericana
By Nora Fernández
Black Cultural Centre:
The History of Slavery
This past month, I
visited the Black Cultural
Centre here in Nova Scotia.
The brick building, located
on the corner of Main Street
and Cherry Brook Road
(Darmouth), tells the story
of Blacks in the Maritimes.
The Centre evolved from
the proposal made by
Reverend Dr. William
Pearly Oliver in 1972 for the
creation of a Cultural
Educational Centre that
"would meet the needs and
aspirations of the Black
Communities of Nova
Scotia". The Society for the
Protection and Preservation
of Black Culture in Nova
Scotia (Black Cultural
Society) was incorporated
as a charitable organization in 1977.
The Centre, however, was built and
inaugurated only in September 1983.
Since then it has hosted many events,
concerts, workshops, lectures, tours. It
produces a regular newsletter, "The
Preserver," and maintains an internet
site at:
In the Centre I found the museum
and a small library. The museum, I
found, most interesting because of its
exhibits. I was lucky to run into the beautiful
paintings of Susan Tooke, an artist who does
portraits, murals and landscapes as well as
illustrations for children books. These were
actually illustrations for the book "Up Home,"
written by Shauntay Grant, a poet, broadcaster
and musician, very talented and also from this
province. "Up Home" has received some awards
already at the 2009 Atlantic Book Awards, the
Best Atlantic Published Book Award and the
Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence
in Illustration. The book is about a young African-
Nova Scotian girl and helps us understand her
thoughts and feelings and contributes by making
children of color visible.
I also found the many portraits of actual
people moving. Thomas Peters, a black loyalist,
who persuaded 1200 freedmen to leave the
province for Sierra Leone where they founded
Freetown; or, the story of Boston King, the man
who escaped slavery and came to Nova Scotia
in 1783. Rose Fortune, the baggage handler at
Annapolis Royal, used to meet boats from
Boston and Saint John and pushed heavy loads
of trunks from the wharf to hotels. She later
became more like Annapolis Royal department
of police, imposing order in town. But, she was
also a proud, supportive grandmother who
passed her business to her grandson, James
Lewis ­who expanded it and formed a trucking
company called Lewis Transfer.
Among the many things I remember the
picture- poster of Sam Langford, born in
Weymouth Falls (Nova Scotia). The grandson of
the escaped slave William Langford, Sam
became the "King of Boxing" and was known as
the "Boston Terror." Sam's story shows the
price oppressed people pay often, in that not
only do they face oppression outside their
homes but often they face it inside as well ­due
to feelings of worthlessness and self hate that
can favour violence against those that should be
most loved. Sam himself left home, when still a
kid, to flee his abusive father. He lived on the
streets but managed to reach Boston. And, in
Boston, he found employment as a janitor in a
boxing gym. There he learned his trade,
debuting as a boxer at age 15 or so, and
entering boxing history forever. Sam boxed into
his forties but because of boxing he lost his
sight. Blind and very poor, he was found in
Harlem (New York) by Al Laney -a reporter for
the New York Herald Tribune. Laney helped
establish a trust for Sam, with contributions from
his fans, so he could live better. Sam died in
1956 in a nursing home in New York.
memorable portrait
is the picture of
beautiful Portia
White, teacher,
musician and a
great singer
(contralto) of
international fame,
Portia was born in
Truro in 1911 and
died in 1968. Portia
suffered racism
herself, she was
refused to be
allowed to perform in concert halls in the early
stages of her career and even denied room in a
hotel in Halifax. Portia, however, never speak
publicly against racism and tried to combat it by
breaking the color barrier in Canadian classical
music. She was one of the greatest vocalists in
Canadian history.
The story of Harriet Tubman, the female
slave who helped other slaves to escape and
come into Canada through her Underground
Railroad ­is in my mind because I have read this
story to my children. Edith Clayton, the basket
weaver, makes me think of women who turn the
every day into extraordinary. Edith made her first
basket at age 8 and through her life she
developed weaving into an art. Edith died in
1989. Another African-Nova Scotian, Harriel
Colley, married young and gave birth to 15
children, and had to raise alone 12 when her
husband died an untimely death. Harriel worked
hard as a domestic in Halifax. The hard work
and sacrifice of these women remind me of the
beautifully artistic portrait made in textile by Jean
Archer, also at the Centre, the textile is called:
Wednesday´s Child is full of woe. The stories of
African-Nova Scotians are full of courage but
also evoke pain, the pain and suffering brought
by oppression, racism and slavery.
The Wall of Honour of Reverend Doctor
WP Oliver tells us about African-Nova Scotian
achievements: members of the RCMP, police,
firefighters, the army, the story of the Number 2
Construction Batallion, the list of 100 ordained
black clergy. Dr. Oliver himself was a dedicated,
focused, hard working individual who earned two
bachelor degrees by age 24 and at a challenging
time for people of African descent. He is the
founder of the Nova Scotia Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NSAACP) and
was called "Nova Scotia´s Passionate Defender
of Equality." A defender of Equality, in the midst
of inequality and oppression, had to struggle.
The option for non-violent struggle is clearly
identified in the Centre with portrays and words
from Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and
Mahatma Ghandi, prime examples of non-violent
And yet, there are decisions made that can
be questioned. For example, it moved me to
tears the sight of a solitary pair of iron bracelets
used with slaves. But I found the exhibit small.
Maybe this is so on purpose as the history of
slaves is embedded in the Centre. But it is also
possible that the Centre, maybe African-Nova
Scotians themselves, need to be careful even
now when the issue of slavery is raised.
Until recently, Canadians believed, or chose
to believe, that slavery had not existed in
Canada or it was far less "harsh" than anywhere
else. Many did not mention the word "slave" but
preferred instead to use the word "domestic" in
its place.
Nevertheless, slavery was established in
Quebec by the French in 1689. They called the
laws governing the conditions of slavery (and the
conduct of the enslaved, not the conduct of the
masters) the Code Noir (Black Code). After the
Code Noir a number of royal declarations (1721,
1742, 1745) made possible for slaves to be
listed with "effects and merchandise" in parish
records, legal notices and official documents of
the time. It took around sixty years since the
time of Louis XIV mandate of 1689 for the
practice of slavery to reach Nova Scotia., but it
did. When the Loyalists arrived in 1783 slavery
was already flourishing.
Enslaved people, however, were not only
African but also Aboriginal; they both resisted the
slavery system very much, Afua Cooper explains
in her book "The Hanging of Angelique. The
untold story of Slavery in Canada and the
Burning of old Montreal." The most spectacular
act of defiance and resistance, however, was
implemented by Marie Joseph Angelique, a 29
year old Portuguese born Black woman charged
with setting fire to Montreal in 1734. The fire
destroyed the house of her masters, as well as
half of the city of Montreal. Angelique, accused
and tried, was found guilty and sentenced to
hang; her dead body was burned and her ashes
were scattered to the winds ­talk about
vengeance. Cooper's book, published in 2006,
ends with the myth of "Canada did not have
slaves" or treated them "not so harshly."
Thus, when 3500 Black people fleeing from
Southern States during the American
Revolutionary War arrived in Canada with the
Loyalists, the British promise of protection, land,
and a better life was short lived. Under the
command of Colonel Bluck an African Corps
was established, known as the Black Pioneers
and integrated by runaway slaves. In the
majority of Loyalist Corps there were men of
African descent serving as buglers, musicians
and servants. These people settled in the
Shelburne and Birchtown areas in 1784 with the
white settlers but soon realized that they had not
escaped their harsh, painful life of slavery. By
1785 Shelburne was largely known as a place
with slave labour, there were approximately
1,269 "servants." Some 2000 slaves entered
Canada between 1783-4; about 1200 were
distributed in the Atlantic Provinces (Nova Scotia
receiving the largest number). The treatment of
slaves in Canada was just as severe as in the
United States. They were punished when they
disobeyed their master, in some cases whipped,
tortured or murdered.
"Enslaved Africans, especially in Quebec,
New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, perhaps
encouraged by antislavery reformers, also took
their masters to court in their bid for freedom.
One example is that of enslaved woman Nancy
Morton, owned by one Captain Caleb Jones of
Fredericton, New Brunswick. In 1800, Morton
sued Jones for wrongful ownership. The case
reached the New Brunswick Supreme Court, but
Morton lost and was returned to Jones. Although
she was unsuccessful, Morton nonetheless
showed tremendous agency in challenging her
owner by taking him to the highest court in the
land." (Afua Cooper, Slavery in Canada,
As Cooper explains, slavery began to
decline by the end of the 18 century, influenced
by the brutal removal of slave woman Chloe
Cooley to New York State, Lieutenant-Governor
Graves Simcoe passed an act to ban
importation of new slaves into the colony. It did
not free slaves but paved the way for the
eventual end of slavery. It took until the British
Emancipation Act of 1833 to formally end slavery
in the Canadian provinces: "Several enslaved
Blacks, came forward, on 1 August 1834, when
the Act took effect, and gained their freedom."
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