Breaking barriers: A living legend inspires Nova Scotia blacks

A long legacy of racial intolerance stains Nova Scotia’s history. Here’s a look back at the sense of anticipation before Rosa Parks came to visit her Canadian companions.


 

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    Jamie Sparks is a 24-year-old black Haligonian who is making his mark on the Maritimes music scene. Winner of this year’s East Coast Music Award as best Dance/Hip Hop Artist of the Year, Sparks is preparing to launch his first national tour to promote his recently released CD, The Time. But despite his success, Sparks, like many other members of Nova Scotia’s black community, still endures the everyday sting of racism. “Sure, it happens,” he says, “it happens all the time. It’s not upfront or blatant, but it’s there.” Sparks talks about going shopping with his wife, Richelle, who is white, and having store personnel follow them around, apparently fearing he might steal something. On another occasion, he and his young son met Richelle in a bus shelter, only to have an elderly white woman promptly leave and head down the street to another bus stop. “Sometimes people are racist and don’t even realize what they are doing,” says Sparks. He adds: “Years ago, I think it was a lot worse.”

    There is, unhappily, a long legacy of racial intolerance in Nova Scotia. It stretches back over 200 years to the exploitation of former slaves who arrived in the region in the late 1700s, through more recent episodes such as the 1960s bulldozing of Africville—a self-contained black community on the shore of Halifax’s Bedford Basin—and repeated outbursts of racially motivated violence at the Halifax-area Cole Harbour District High School in the 1990s. Given that history, it is little wonder that the province’s black population, which now numbers roughly 20,000, is eagerly anticipating this week’s five-day visit to Nova Scotia by a black woman who is famous for overcoming adversity. Rosa Parks, now a physically frail but still-spirited 85 years of age, is credited with jump-starting the U.S. civil rights movement when she refused to give her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Sparks speaks for many when he enthuses: “I think it’s great to have someone like her around this region. It inspires me to know that no matter what you are up against, you can still come out on top.”

    Parks will arrive in Nova Scotia on July 30 to oversee Pathways to Freedom, an annual event sponsored by the North Carolina-based Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which she founded in 1987 in memory of her late husband, a fellow civil rights activist. (The institute works with youths, ages 11 to 17, to teach them about their heritage and help them reach their potential.) Pathways to Freedom involves young people in commemorating the Underground Railroad, the informal network of safe houses that helped pre-Civil War runaway slaves escape to the northern United States and Canada. This year’s Pathways will see 20 Nova Scotia youths playing host to 80 Americans from across the United States, including visits to some of the province’s earliest black settlements.

    While in Halifax, Parks will also receive an honorary degree from Mount Saint Vincent University in recognition of her unique role in the civil rights movement. On the evening of Dec. 1,1955, Parks was riding home from her job as a seamstress in downtown Montgomery, sitting in the first row of seats reserved for “colored” passengers. When the bus filled up with white people, the driver ordered Parks and three other blacks to move to the back. She refused, and her arrest led to a citywide bus boycott that lasted for 381 days, until the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional. The boycott saw the emergence of a young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., as a national leader, and ushered in an era of protest marches and sit-ins that helped break down many of the racial barriers black people had faced for generations.

    Among Nova Scotia blacks, Parks’s solitary act of defiance has particular resonance. In a much less publicized incident, Viola Desmond, a beautician from Halifax, was arrested in 1946 for refusing to sit in the balcony reserved for blacks at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. While Desmond spent only one night in jail for the offence, her story shows that the days when black Nova Scotians attended segregated churches and schools and were barred from white barber shops are not so distant. In fact, Nova Scotia only outlawed separate schools for blacks in 1954, something that strikes Henry Bishop, chief curator of the Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia in Dartmouth, as particularly shameful. “The schools created an atmosphere of inferiority for those who were exposed to them,” he says. “That’s the biggest problem we are still adjusting to today. Hundreds of years of degradation does not change overnight.”

    The black presence in Nova Scotia began in earnest between 1775 and 1783, when more than 3,000 free blacks and former slaves who fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution earned right of passage to the northern colony. For these so-called Black Loyalists, promises of free land grants soon proved hollow and many had to enter into sharecropping relationships with white farmers. A second wave of emigrés, known as the Black Refugees, fared little better. Former slaves who had supported the British during the War of 1812, they once again saw guarantees of adequate food, clothing and shelter give way to the reality of disease and destitution.

    Despite the hardships, Nova Scotia blacks persevered, helping to establish communities across the province. The majority, though, gravitated towards Halifax—most notably to the town of Preston, just east of the city limits, and to Africville. The latter, first settled 150 years ago, initially held out the promise of hardworking families maintaining their own country village in the heart of the provincial capital. But in quick succession, city officials located a series of noxious facilities—including a slaughterhouse, an infectious diseases hospital and garbage dumps—on Africville’s doorstep. By the early 1960s, the community had earned a national reputation as an American-style ghetto, with no water or sewer services and substandard housing.

    Determined to eradicate what it considered an eyesore, the city of Halifax set out to raze Africville and shift its residents into public housing. The relocation effort, completed by 1967, was rife with new indignities. Because of Africville’s reputed filth, many moving companies refused to take the residents’ belongings; instead, they were hauled away in garbage trucks. In a similar vein, bulldozers tore down Africville’s spiritual centre, the Seaview African Baptist Church, in the dead of night as most residents lay sleeping. The legacy of such actions is a lingering bitterness, not to mention an outstanding lawsuit against the city by some former Africville residents demanding compensation for lands they feel were bought by the city for a fraction of market value. “Africville is like a bad cold, it just won’t go away,” says Bishop. “Until that wrong has been righted, there won’t be any rest.”

    More recently, the focus of racial tension has been in the province’s schools. In 1989, Cole Harbour High—which serves predominantly black Preston as well as Eastern Passage, a mainly white, working-class suburb of Halifax—garnered national attention when a snowball fight escalated into a brawl pitting white students against black. Five years later, a provincial task force on black education came to the stark conclusion that “most African-Canadian children are from birth trapped in a vicious cycle of societal rejection and isolation, poverty, low expectations, and low educational achievement.” The province moved to adopt many of the commission’s recommendations, including the hiring of more black teachers and principals. But it has yet to heal the divisions at Cole Harbour High, which was closed for a week last October after the latest outburst of violence involving white and black students and parents.

    For all the setbacks, most black leaders agree there have been important strides towards equality, reflected in a growing number of black educators, police officers and civil servants. In the political arena, however, progress has been painfully slow. In 1993, Wayne Adams became the first black person elected to the provincial legislature when he won the Preston riding for the Liberals. In this spring’s provincial election, Adams was defeated by the NDP’s Yvonne Atwell, who now holds the distinction of being the first female black MLA Shortly after her election, Atwell drew a vitriolic public response when she advocated setting aside a dedicated seat for blacks in the legislature. Newspaper columnists railed against what they called reverse racism, while one hotline caller demanded to know what Atwell wanted next. “Blacks-only water fountains?” he blustered. “Their own section on the bus?”

    Atwell was dismayed by the reaction. “I thought people had grown up enough to think about what I was saying,” she sighs. But like many black leaders, Atwell prefers not to dwell on the negative—and is looking forward to Parks’s visit as a possible balm for the province’s racial wounds. Parks, she notes, has shown how “one person’s little act can change the face of history.” Atwell is betting the magic of that message will not be lost on Nova Scotians, black and white alike. □

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