In March 2021, when the House of Commons voted unanimously to officially designate August 1 “Emancipation Day,” I paid little attention.
That changed this year after visiting the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Shelburne, Nova Scotia where I was given much food for thought. My hope with this column is that you, too, might pause each August 1 and reflect on this courageous, unique and valuable segment of Canadian Maritime history and society.
Why August 1? It marks the specific day in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire.
How is that directly connected to Canada? Enter the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
Let me begin with a Black Loyalists Heritage Centre site quote: “The Black Loyalists were mostly runaway slaves, who were offered their freedom by the British to serve in the British military against the Americans during the American Revolution. In 1783 and 1784, approximately 3,500 Black Loyalists were relocated to the Maritimes. There was also a small number in Ontario.”
In return for their service and allegiance to the British Crown, the slaves were promised their freedom and land in British North America. History, however, documents that their freedom was hard won. Despite including many skilled artisans, cooks, tailors, guides and fishermen, they endured racism, extreme hardship and—compared to white settlers —waited years to receive smaller inferior land grants.
After demanding shelter, land and provisions, an offer was made to relocate them to Africa, their ancestral home. In 1792, approximately 1,200 Black Loyalists accepted the offer and emigrated to Sierra Leone to establish their own colony. However, many chose to remain and continue to be honoured and revered by their descendants.
The Lindsay Gallery, featuring a multimedia exhibit, anchors the solid single story building which opened in 2015. Over 3,000 names inscribed in glass on the gallery floor, on the imposing picture windows and on the story boards proudly proclaim the original Black Loyalists who were also listed in the Book of Negroes.
Under the inscribed glass floor is a simulated archaeological dig displaying many of the 16,000 artifacts found on the property. Storyboards, documents and interpretive guides, including Jason Farmer, a 9th generation Black Loyalist, offer visitors insight into the settlers hardship, courage and history.
Towering trees surround Aminata’s Walk (named after the central character in the Book of Negroes), a trail leading to an example of a pitifully ventilated A-frame style Pit House constructed of logs, moss, leaves, and rocks perched over a hole in the ground. Intuitively, my conscience roils in sympathy for those long-gone families. I recoil at the thought of virtually no protection from the elements, women in childbirth, diseases without vaccines, poverty, no sanitation. Unimaginable.
Nearby is the 1835 one-room school that was in operation until the 1960s and St. Paul’s Anglican Church, which is situated on the site of the original Meeting House run by Moses Wilkinson, a Methodist preacher in the 1780s.
The riverside burial ground nearby proudly features a national monument which states: “This Monument Declares Birchtown to be a National Historic Site.”
‘The Book of Negroes’ mini-series based on the book by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, was partially filmed here and many of the props were donated to the society.
For more information on Nova Scotia’s Black Loyalist Heritage Centre go to www.blackloyaist.com.
Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is the founding publisher and managing editor of the Cloverdale Reporter. Contact her at email@example.com.