I take a few minutes to pause at a tiny burial ground in Shelburne dedicated to Black freedom seekers who struggled to make a life on this peaceful patch of Nova Scotia.
It is a tiny slip of land near the ocean with a plaque overshadowed by a copse of maple trees. I have never visited this place but within seconds I’m lulled into a restful, reflective state. I think about the people who have walked these shores before me and can’t shake the feeling that I am being called home.
The Black Loyalist Heritage Centre & Society focuses on the story of the world’s largest free African population outside of Africa that made Nova Scotia their home in the late 18th century. The site features a historic school, a church and a replica A-frame style pit house where Black people were forced to shelter following the Shelburne Race Riots of 1784, triggered when a mob of 40 white Loyalists demolished the houses of Black people. At the Lindsay Exhibition Gallery, which features a multi-media exhibit that showcases the stories of over 3,000 Black Loyalists, is a viewing area that allows visitors to view archaeological artifacts that were excavated in the 1990s through a glass floor. They can also read inspirational quotes on the walls, and see the names of people who tried to make a hostile environment home.
One exhibit I loved was the virtual copy of Carlton’s Book of Negroes. Made famous by Canadian author Lawrence Hill The Book of Negroes, a British naval ledger that lists the names of Black Loyalists who fled to Canada, is an invaluable document that gives guests an opportunity to learn more about the people who lived here and search for ancestors.
The Heritage Centre is brimming with information, stories and interesting artifacts but it is the Black Burial Ground where I linger. After a few minutes I take a knee and allow my fingers to run through the soft grass, overcome by a desire to get as close to my people as possible, to touch this remarkable history.
There are no records to show who is buried in this solemn place but the professionals at Black Loyalist Heritage Centre & Society, are working diligently to ensure their stories are not lost to history. Executive director Andrea Davis, who is also a direct ancestor of Black Loyalists who made their home here, says the Heritage Centre is a healing place for the community. Their goal, she says, is to keep their stories alive for future generations.
“A lot of people died along these shores. Imagine an African being dropped off in the dead of winter and it’s all rocks, they have no provisions, and there’s nothing for them to do. A lot of them died on these grounds,” Davis said. “My intention is to ensure that this centre becomes the hub of the understanding and the historical benefits that need to be outstretched to the entire world. We all have a big job in front of us to ensure that this history is understood.”
Being Loyal Didn’t Guarantee Loyalty
The story of the United Empire Loyalists is familiar to me and is known to most Canadians because it was a topic that was taught in school. With the American victory over Britain in the Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775 to September 3, 1783) those who had remained loyal to the crown were no longer welcome in the United States. It became necessary for Britain to evacuate them and the United Empire Loyalists, as they became known, were promised land and a new life north of the border.
The journey of Black Loyalists wasn’t familiar to me and was not taught in school. During the war, free and enslaved Black Loyalists began arriving in Nova Scotia. Between 1782 and 1784 around 3,550 people of colour — including slaves — had arrived in the province settling near Shelburne, Digby and Halifax with the largest contingent remaining in the South Shore. In the wake of the American Revolution, according to Canadian Encyclopedia, Loyalists brought at least 15,000 enslaved people to various corners of the British Empire, of which approximately 1,200 were brought to the Maritimes. Others were freedom seekers who arrived in the country via the Underground Railroad, trying to escape the horrors of slavery in the United States. Several escaped slaves even served the British cause in the Black Pioneer Corps.
The loyalty they gave to the crown was quickly forgotten when the war ended and Black Loyalists discovered their newfound freedom in their adopted country wouldn’t translate into equality. Canada is often portrayed in a way that suggests fugitive slaves and refugees could find freedom, a better life, and welcoming neighbours. This simply isn’t true.
Black Loyalists were not given land right away as promised, as white settlers were given first choice. The lots Blacks received were small, lacking in arability, and of poorer quality. The results were disastrous. They struggled to grow crops and were not prepared to deal with the harsh winter. Adding to the fears of Black Loyalists was the ever-present threat of being kidnapped and returned to slavery and the fact that enslavers in Nova Scotia felt threatened by the presence of the free Black Loyalists.
Sharing the story of Black Loyalists
The Black Loyalist Heritage Centre & Society does a marvelous job of telling the inspiring stories of those courageous men and women.
“Since the museum opened in June of 2015 there has been over 40,000 visitors through the center,” says Program and Outreach Coordinator Braden Chetwynd. “We have a lot of visitors from Canada, of course, but you’d be surprised how many international visitors we have had. So far this year we’ve had visitors already from Australia, Germany, and we do see a lot of people, especially from Sierra Leone. Many visitors from Sierra Leone had roots back to the Black Loyalists who went to Sierra Leone and settled for town in 1792.”
Constructed between 1888 and 1905, St. Paul’s Anglican Church is another stop on the museum grounds. The building sits on the site of the original meeting house used by the first-generation Black Loyalists. There is also the old school house that served the early residents of Birchtown, including Black Loyalist Heritage Centre & Society interpreter Jessie Corrigan.
For Corrigan, this place is more than a museum — it’s where she was born and the stories she talks about are of her ancestors.
“This place is important to me because it tells the stories of my ancestors, which I never knew,” explained Corrigan as she took us for a tour of a building that served as the schoolhouse – her former childhood school, as she would have you know – until 1960 before becoming part of Black Loyalist Heritage Museum. “It’s a lot of information that we never knew because we were never taught any of this stuff.”
A Calling to Come Home
Davis is trying to change that. She says like many others who grew up in Canada she didn’t learn Black history despite being raised in the area.
“It wasn’t until I did one year at Dalhousie University and was taking history, as a matter of fact that I learned about slavery in Canada. It really woke me up and it shocked me,” says Davis. “I knew that my ancestors were calling me. I’m a dark-skinned person, and I’m one of very few people in Birchtown who still have the dark skin. So I’ve always wondered why? I never knew about the history of my African ancestors.”
It was that desire to discover who she was that drove Davis to learn more. After 31 years working for the City of Toronto, Davis made the decision to return home to run the museum.
“When this job came up, I definitely jumped on. I said, ‘Let me do this.’ And the ancestors said, ‘Girl, you’re coming home,’” said Davis. “So that’s the spiritual thing about this place is that there was a connection. That it’s already been made for me in my path, and I’m just following that path as directed.”
After several minutes at the Black Burial Ground I collected myself and slowly made my way back to the church. My only regret is that my visit couldn’t last longer but I feel gratitude and pride. It seems that the ancestors are calling out to me as well — just as they did to Andrea Davis — saying, “You’re coming home.”
It’s true, I am coming home. And this tiny piece of Shelburne will always be in my heart as I follow my own path.
MORE ABOUT BLACK LOYALIST HERITAGE CENTRE & SOCIETY
Hours: Open Monday-Friday, 9:30 am-4 pm (closed weekends and holidays).
Admission: Adult – $8, Senior/Student – $5, Family – $20