On February 22, 2012, officials from all three levels of government gathered in a little church in Birchtown – a tiny village in Nova Scotia – to help Elizabeth Cromwell make a very big announcement. She’s waited decades for this moment. More accurately, she and the other members of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society (BLHS) have worked hard for decades toward this day when they could announce that a $4.6 million interpretive centre would be built to tell the story of the Black Loyalist experience and their contribution to Canadian life, an important chapter in the epic of the African North American journey from slavery to freedom.
This is the story of those freed and escaped from slavery in the American south in the late 18th century to start new lives on the shores of what was then a British colony. “It’s fitting that we stand in this church to say thank-you,” said an emotional Cromwell in her speech to those gathered for the announcement. “Our ancestors, other people from this community of Birchtown – Black and white – started in 1888 to collect money to build this church. They didn’t open it until 1906. We’re used to long journeys. But we’re not used to giving up. We’ll never give up.”
Long journeys indeed. The announcement that the federal government will contribute $2.5 million, the Province of Nova Scotia a further $2.5 million over the first ten years of the project and the Municipality of Shelburne $50,000 – the BLHS has raised over $1 million in donations, and needs more – is a funding puzzle it’s taken Cromwell and her fellows years of effort and persistence to put together. The BLHS Capital Campaign continues, headed up by a cabinet of noteworthy Canadian figures and supported by a Council of Patrons that includes the bestselling author of The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill – a book partially set in Birchtown and nearby Shelburne – and opera star Measha Brueggergosman whose roots are Black Loyalist. By the way, the title of Lawrence’s book comes from an historical document of the same name that includes the names and descriptions of 3000 Black refugees who sailed from New York to Nova Scotia in 1783, many of them landing in Birchtown.
It is in fact this very spirit of determination that the Centre itself will commemorate and celebrate. This isn’t an easy, feel-good story to tell, as Cromwell explained in her remarks about Birchtown itself. “We have a place here established by those settlers who came here all those years ago, voting with their feet to leave the United States, those 13 colonies, to leave that situation of slavery and to say never again. They were lied to, they were cheated, they were used, they were beaten. They lost their memory of where they came from and who they were.”
Yes, even after securing their own freedom from slavery, the Africans who fled to Birchtown in 1783 to form what was then the largest free Black settlement in British North America were sorely abused by those who’d freed them. The land they’d been granted was forested and unsuitable for farming. Many had to live in holes dug in the ground that first winter. Local governments passed laws preventing freed Blacks from setting up businesses or even living within town limits and even keeping them from fishing in the harbour. Some ended up back in servitude as the only way to survive. Within a decade, so many were so desperate and so poor, they signed on for a return trip to Africa where they helped found Freetown in Sierra Leone.
Perhaps this legacy is why Cromwell’s remarks hinted at mistrust when she said, “It just doesn’t ring true until I see the Minister standing up here.” But such a powerful, dignified woman would never dwell on such things. Instead, she remembered those who were no longer part of the struggle, then went on to speak of the hope for the future the Centre will symbolize.
“It’s our time and our turn to tell the story of our people,” said Cromwell in an even, confident voice. “When you walk in that centre when it’s open in 2013, one of the things we want people to understand is the strength of the people who came here and endured. And we want people to be inspired so when they leave here, they’ll want to return to look at other aspects of the journey, to bring their children and their grandchildren, and to leave with a feeling of hope.”
The Centre will be all that, but it’s persistent, enduring people dedicated to the accurate telling of Black history behind the project, people like Elizabeth Cromwell herself who are the real hope for a future guided by justice, inclined toward dignity and secured by mutual respect and cooperation.
Photo and Illustration used by permission of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society.
Elizabeth Cromwell, President of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society.
An artist’s conception of the new interpretive centre in Birchtown to be completed by July 2013 that will tell the story of the Black Loyalists.