Rebuilding efforts bypassed Africville
There was relief aplenty after the Halifax Explosion on Dec. 6, 1917, but not across the tracks
By JON TATTRIE
Sat. Dec. 6, 2009
NINETY-TWO years ago today, the Halifax Explosion devastated the North End of the city. Shock waves swept over the hills and smashed windows and tore off roofs in Africville, killing at least two people.
The terrible blast destroyed the North End while mostly sparing Africville, but 50 years later, the revitalized North End was thriving as Africville lay in ruins.
How did the Halifax Explosion destroy Africville and save the North End?
Eddie Carvery, who has spent almost 40 years at his Africville protest on the Bedford Basin, says his grandmother Hattie Carvery told him about their village before the explosion.
"We were a prosperous people," he says. "According to the old people, Africville, black people, was on the rise. They were becoming organized, becoming very political. Before the explosion, Africville had an importance. After the explosion, it seems like everything we had contributed was lost. The businesses that we did have, they never got them restarted. To our peril, the city took prominence. Halifax had to be rebuilt and they didn’t have time for to look at the black section."
The damage was done not by the erupting Mont-Blanc, but by decades of neglect and abuse as recovery money poured into the North End while Africville fought for basic services.
Paul Erickson, a SMU anthropology professor and the author of Historic North End Halifax, confirms the worst-hit area on Dec. 6 was industrial Richmond. After the explosion, stoves tipped over and set houses alight.
"It was just unbelievable," he says of the devastation. "It was absolutely horrific."
The relief effort started immediately and some of the first responders were from Africville.
"There’s a famous photograph of some Africville women coming along Campbell Road," he says in a phone interview from his office. "The contrast wasn’t there. I mean, 1917 was 1917. It was almost 100 years ago — nobody had amenities. The gap — the stratification of services — hadn’t really developed."
Irvine Carvery, president of the Africville Genealogy Society and Eddie Carvery’s younger brother, sheds light on the tale of two cities. Oral history recalls that after the explosion, everybody in Africville rushed to the church. "They thought it was Armageddon — they thought the end of the world was coming," he says in a phone interview.
When they realized the world wasn’t over, people headed up the hill to help.
"They were coming in to see how their employers were doing, to see if they could help with the children. The people of Africville wanted to help as much as they could, even though they were in dire straits themselves," Irvine Carvery says. "It’s almost as though nobody went to Africville to record the damage or see if people were in dire straits — there’s no record of Africville during the Halifax Explosion."
A massive relief effort followed. In Shattered City, Janet Kitz says more than $23 million was donated from all over the world to rebuild the devastated city, a staggering sum in 1917.
"The reconstruction efforts were really quite extraordinary," Erickson says. "It was really done by the Halifax Relief Commission."
Town planner Thomas Adams was hired to reimagine the new city. Some of his ideas — significantly the Hydrostone— came to life, while others, such as a Fort Needham park to rival Point Pleasant Park, didn’t quite live up to plans.
"The North End received assistance in terms of rebuilding, but that was never afforded Africville," Irvine Carvery notes. He explains why: when the Halifax Relief Commission first sat down to determine their "area of jurisdiction" for providing assistance, they drew a circle on the map of Halifax.
"Africville was inside the circle. The next day, they redrew it, putting Africville outside of the area. They were asked the question, ‘Well, what about Africville?’ Their response was, ‘Well, Africville is someone else’s problem.’"
It didn’t get relief and those disabled by the explosion weren’t given pensions.
"The relief trains went right through the centre of Africville without stopping to provide relief to the people of Africville," Irvine Carvery marvels.
Not everybody in the North End was happy with the rebuilding. Kitz reports that in a 1918 public meeting, "for many in attendance the scheme was much too grand." One man "grumbled that plumbing fit for a mansion had already been put into temporary dwellings, so what further extravagance would be committed for permanent ones?"
Africville did not have such concerns.
The Hydrostone was complete by 1921, providing high-quality housing for the displaced residents. It’s not clear how many returned, as "ground zero" held bad memories, Erickson says.
While millions of dollars poured into the North End, none of it crossed the hill to Africville.
"The Halifax Explosion provided an excellent opportunity for the city of Halifax to rebuild that community," Irvine Carvery says, adding the federal and donated funds meant it wouldn’t have cost the city a penny.
The Great Depression of the 1920s slowed reconstruction.
"In the 1930s, you could still see weed-grown foundations in that area," Erickson says of the North End. "You can go well into the 1940s and there are aerial shots (where) you see a large area of overgrown grass."
In the post-Second World War boom in the 1950s, the North End came alive with "pre-fab" family housing. The streets were paved and electricity and sewage plugged it back into the city.
Meanwhile, Africville continued to fight for basic services. The streets were still unpaved, the well water was still undrinkable and houses were starting to fall into disrepair. Its school was closed in the early 1950s. In the mid 1950s, Halifax put an open dump a few metres outside of Africville.
"They didn’t look at us as that important and as a result, we went into a state of poverty and by the 50s, we were ready for a dump," Eddie Carvery says as trucks rumble past his encampment outside of Seaview Park.
"Africville continued to receive services unwanted in other parts of the city while receiving no basic services for themselves," Irvine Carvery agrees.
The two brothers rarely see eye-to-eye on how to fight for justice for Africville. Irvine, chairman of the Halifax Regional School Board, has long fought from the inside while Eddie, along with his brother Victor, has made headlines for his battles with the city over his right to protest at the site. But they agree on the cause of Africville’s long decline.
"We were treated differently because of the colour of our skin. We had no economic power, we had no political power, so they didn’t see us as being important enough to provide those kinds of services," Irvine Carvery says. "They could’ve changed the lives of all the people in Africville for less than $1 million, but that was still too much to spend on the people of Africville."
In the 1960s, the city finished what the explosion had started: it demolished Africville. Today, the ruins are blanketed by the $1-million dog park built in the 1980s.
Closing his eyes, Irvine Carvery can see a different world: one where the city had seized the opportunity in 1917 and built an Africvillian Hydrostone.
"You would have a very vibrant, culturally diverse community on the shores of the Bedford Basin. Economically, it would have been a huge stepping stone for the people of Africville," he says. "You would have seen a completely different community than what they destroyed, if only they had invested that little bit of money."
Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist based in Halifax. He’s the author of Black Snow, a novel of the Halifax Explosion, and the Hermit of Africville, due out in the fall of 2010.
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