Family Ties, Inertia, Discrimination : Novia Scotia Enclave Founded by Ex-U.S. Slaves Survives Intact

Associated Press

Held fast by family ties, inertia and a legacy of discrimination, an enclave of blacks directly descended from American slaves has survived intact in a corner of maritime Canada where their ancestors took refuge 200 years ago.

"Some young people move out, but a lot decide to move back the first chance they get," said Edgar Johnson, a handyman in North Preston, where split-level homes and run-down shanties indicate progress, and the lack of it, for a tiny minority that somehow hangs together.

Half an hour's drive from the provincial capital of Halifax, North and East Preston are the heart of the original freed-slave settlement of the 1780s. They remain virtually segregated in a province that has 30,000 blacks in 48 scattered communities.

North Preston's two elementary schools, the Nelson Whynder and Allen W. Evans, are entirely black. And the local orphanage is named the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, as if the civil rights and black power movements never happened.

Little Change

Winding country roads, wooded hills and fishing ponds have changed little since freed slaves were first apportioned 10-acre plots of swampy land in Preston.

"It's unique in Canada," said Dr. Bridglal Pichai, director of the Black Cultural Center for Nova Scotia. "The land was allotted to them in the 1780s, and they have been there ever since."

In 1841, Sampson Carter, William Dair Seur and 105 other blacks in Preston petitioned the government for title to their land and the chance to move to better lots where "by patient industry and frugality" they could improve their prospects.

But the request was denied, and Pichai said that the majority of Preston residents still lack legal title to raise mortgages or sell their land, an oversight that typifies the quiet neglect of Nova Scotian blacks. "We're working on this now with our lawyers," he said.

Comfortable Life

While Preston residents complain of discrimination, especially in the job market in an economically depressed province, life is comfortable for many.

East Preston is a verdant community of modest single-family homes nestled among the trees, with cars in the driveway, flowers in the garden and rocking chairs on the porches. Many residents commute into Halifax for work.

North Preston is a poorer, more congested settlement dependent on welfare checks and plagued by unemployment and alcoholism. A row of new government-subsidized homes is a figurative stone's throw from wooden shacks reminiscent of the Old South. Residents are reluctant to talk with reporters, because of past news articles depicting their community of 1,200 as a slum.

They say that blacks have remained isolated here for generations for good reason: the availability of land, a society built on the extended family and local church, and the comfort of staying with your own in an alien culture and climate.

Close Community

"Everybody knows everybody," said Johnson, 43, who works for the Preston Area Housing Fund. "It's like brothers and sisters in this community. If your car breaks down, everyone who passes will help you."

The government does not record separate statistics on blacks, but Johnson put the jobless rate in North Preston at 80% in winter and 15% in summer, when there is construction work.

Gerald Taylor, director of the Halifax Black United Front, said that 18 of every 20 Preston students drop out of high school. Many girls leave because of pregnancy.

"If they have two kids, the government will actually build them a house," said Doris Evans, a retired teacher and member of the Black Educators' Assn. She tells blacks they have to out-perform whites, rather than expect special treatment, in order to achieve equality.

Discrimination at School

Evans was born into one of 15 black families in the town of Kentville, and when she reached high school, a white store owner objected to his daughter attending the same school.

"They built a one-room school just for blacks, but I didn't go," she said. "I went back to the old school, and they sat me in the back row in the corner for the whole year." She overcame the humiliation and became one of the few area blacks to enter college.

While groups of jobless teen-agers gather around portable stereos listening to rap music--their speech full of street talk picked up from films and TV--this community, founded on loyalty to king and flag, remains inherently conservative.

"We're more British, quieter," said the Rev. William Pearly Oliver, 75, a Baptist pastor whose ancestors came to the province around 1815.

Small Numbers

"We are such a small number," he said. "I was born in a town where I was the only black child for 25 years. In the United States, there are vast numbers of blacks with their own colleges and a growing middle class."

Oliver, in an interview at his spacious suburban home in the well-off black settlement of Lucasville, described himself as a loyal Canadian but he said Canada's original motive for accepting fugitive slaves was less than noble.

Noting that early Canada was a British colony at odds with the Americans, he said: "The bringing of blacks to Canada was not humanitarianism. It was an act of war, taking labor from the enemy and emptying the plantations.

"All through Nova Scotia, our people have the names of former slave owners--Borden, Sparks, Monroe, Thompson. They were brought here under the pretense of emancipation. But continued, subtle and overt forms of racism got black people down."

Black Cultural Center

A World War II chaplain and former adult education counselor to the province, Oliver inspired the creation of the elegant Black Cultural Center on Highway 7 in East Dartmouth to bolster the low self-esteem of blacks.

Most of the estimated 400,000 blacks in Canada's 26 million population are West Indian immigrants living in the big cities. But about 50,000 are descendants of slaves who came north in search of land and freedom in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Some were the servants or freed slaves of Loyalists who took the British side when war engulfed the American colonies in 1775. Disillusioned when they failed to get the land and equality they expected, 1,200 black Loyalists accepted a British offer to sail to another new life in the West African colony of Sierra Leone in 1792. None came back.

A few years later, more American slaves were offered freedom if they crossed the border during the War of 1812, while a flood of 30,000 streamed into Canada via the house-to-house Underground Railroad network for runaways.

Proud Shantytown

Two-thirds of those who settled in Ontario province, bordering New York and Michigan, returned south after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, while the rest slowly integrated into Canada's richest province.

But in the Atlantic province of Nova Scotia, where winters were colder and jobs and schooling harder to come by, blacks fared less well.

Hundreds lived in a squalid but proud shantytown called Africville, tucked between the Halifax dump and an abattoir, until the city bulldozed it in 1967 and moved them into public housing projects. Former residents are still seeking compensation for the forced move.

One reason Preston has changed so little is that residents think of themselves as country people who learned about the land from the Indians and don't want to move, even though they no longer scratch a living from farming.

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