Black Women and the Civil Rights Movement in Nova Scotia

By Claudine Bonner

The 1960s and 1970s was an era of transformation and awakening for many young people, and especially for the African-descended peoples across the Diaspora.[1] To date, most scholarship focuses on how the American Black Power movement served to inspire and support the struggles of African Canadians.  What has yet to be fully explored are the lives of the people within these struggles beyond those most visible within its leadership. Even less examined are the experiences of the women within these movements.

This post explores why African Nova Scotian women, not part of organizational leadership, chose to join community organizations or self-defined Black Power[2] groups beginning in the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. Using oral history data collected from African Nova Scotian communities as well as documentary evidence and eye-witness accounts, this post examines the impetus for participation by these Canadian women.[3] I argue that the contextual particularities of African Nova Scotian history and its geographic location came together to shape a unique social and political consciousness.

In the fall of 1968, a number of events within the province reinforced broader consciousness raising that was happening across the Diaspora.  For example, the local community was shaken when a cemetery commission in Hants County refused to bury a Black child in October.[4] That event articulated long-standing understandings of racial separation that were held in Nova Scotia. Concurrently, the Africville community was in the throes of relocation and would soon be “destroyed, to be replaced by life in an urban ghetto.”[5] Socially, young people spoke of open discrimination in the hiring process, and Blacks were prohibited access in many public places of business.[6] The educational opportunities of students from the Black community continued to be limited, and few students were able to go beyond Grade 7. As a result of these varied experiences, the out-migration of black populations from the province was high. The effects of the historical legacies of enslavement and racial discrimination had adverse implications for the African Nova Scotian population, which was starting to experience many social problems including alcoholism, crime, increasing numbers of single-parent households and delinquency; in addition to this, physical and mental health problems were on the rise in the community.[7]

YvonneAtwell

Yvonne Atwell, former President of the Black United Front and Nova Scotia MLA

The community was in need of change, and on the evening of November 30th, 1968, four hundred members of the Black community in the province came together at a “family meeting” at the North End Library in Halifax, to discuss the creation of an organization to address the issues being faced by the community. The outcome of this meeting was the formation of the Black United Front, a group loosely based on the 10-point program of the Black Panther party. According to Mrs. R., who attended the gathering that night, “the purpose then was to bring the Black family together, and to move in the direction of improved race relations and human rights for everybody.”[8] She was one of nine women I interviewed, who spoke of having attended this meeting, and of subsequently taking up the reins to achieve this vision. Looking back, almost all said they had been involved in community work even before this period, and for many, joining the Black United Front reflected the persistence of an ethic of care they upheld within their communities. For example, when asked whether or not she had been involved in community groups, Mrs. M. said “everyone that was there [in the community] had been involved.” She continued, “We always took part in community work.”[9] Similarly, Mrs. T. noted “I’ve been involved in community since I can remember—thirteen, fourteen years old—since I started school.”[10]

As an extension of this desire for community work, women also participated in organizations like the Black United Front because of generational shifts around activism and community organizing. Some of the women described how, as young adults, they recognized that they did not want the same lives as their parents. So they involved themselves in groups geared at improving educational opportunities and challenging the sub-standard schools in their communities. Others spoke of the need to become involved to improve access to housing, as they and their families continued to be denied these basic rights. As Mrs. M. noted, “I really got involved with community work because we needed better housing. I had two sons; I lost one son at six years old and I still have one son alive. And I had four girls. Having that number of children, always looking for the future and to better yourself. If you’re not involved in the community, you don’t have a say.”[11] By becoming involved in community organizing, these women saw a means of improving not only their own lives, but those of their children and others within the community.

Building on the work of activists in the decades before them, these women took on public roles within the various Black Nationalist Movements, setting community-focused revolutionary agendas that supported programs for access to daycare, groceries, education and housing. The changes came out of a refusal on their part to accept the world in which they lived, and to take action, to make change, and to be heard. As with each generation, they worked to make things easier for those of us behind them, forever cognizant of the realities of their own past.


Claudine Bonner is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Acadia University.


Notes:

[1] Time magazine declared the younger generation the “Man of the Year” for 1966 because of their “assertive(ness)” and the fact that they were now “so articulate, so educated…so worldly…This is not just a new generation, but a new kind of generation.”  Time, January 7, 1966 as quoted by Dominique Clement, “Generations and the Transformation of Social Movements in Postwar Canada,” Histoire sociale/Social History, vol. 42, no. 84 (November 2009), pp. 361-387.

[2] Here, “Black Power” is defined as a coming together of people of African descent, as a result of a realization that “in order to achieve social equality, it is necessary for Black people to organize themselves so that they can operate from a basis of power.” Jules R. Oliver, “Editorial,” The Grasp. Vol. 1, no. 1, August 1970.

[3] This paper comes out of a SSHRC-funded project titled Nova Scotia Organizing for Black Freedom, which explored life histories in the form of personal narratives from 29 participants from three different African Nova Scotian communities. From those 29 interviews, 9 individual narratives were selected for this paper. Each of the nine narratives was chosen because they provide insight into what made these individuals choose to participate actively in the work of community groups, and more importantly, they were chosen to centre women’s voices.

[4] N.S. Cemetery Cites 1907 Bylaw, Refuses Burial for Negro Child, 3.” The Globe and Mail. October 11, 1968. pg. A1.

[5] Joy Mannette, “Making Something Happen: Nova Scotia’s Black Renaissance, 1968-1986” PhD diss., Carleton University, 1987, 109.

[6] See Rex Tasker, “Encounter at Kwacha House Halifax,” NFB. 1967.

[7] Bridglal Pachai, The Nova Scotia Black Experience through the Centuries. 2007, Nimbus Publishing. While this paints a dire picture of life within the community, it is important to note that the focus of this paper is solely on the ills as impetus for change.

[8] All interviewees have been provided with pseudonyms. Mrs. R. Interview by author. Audio recording. Winter 2011.

[9] Mrs. M. Interview by author. Audio recording. Winter 2011.

[10] Mrs. T. Interview by author. Audio recording. Winter 2011.

[11] Mrs. M. Interview by author. Audio recording. Winter 2011.

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The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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