Graves of historical N.S. Black community members given headstone

·4 min read
The headstone for the eight graves in Christ Church cemetery was unveiled by Rev. Emmanuel Mutale, left, and Rev. Kyle Wagner, centre. Barbara Adams, MLA for Eastern Passage, also gave remarks. (Victoria Welland/CBC - image credit)
The headstone for the eight graves in Christ Church cemetery was unveiled by Rev. Emmanuel Mutale, left, and Rev. Kyle Wagner, centre. Barbara Adams, MLA for Eastern Passage, also gave remarks. (Victoria Welland/CBC - image credit)

Graves are meant to be places to remember.

But for eight members of the historical Black community, The Avenue, their graves were nearly forgotten.

During the construction of some apartment buildings on Crichton Avenue in Dartmouth, N.S., in the 1970s, their bodies were dug up, moved to Christ Church cemetery and buried without a marker.

On Sunday, two churches came together to remember them and to place a headstone.

The ceremony started in Victoria Road United Baptist Church. The congregation sang hymns and the five discovered names of the eight people were read out.

Victoria Welland/CBC
Victoria Welland/CBC

After the ceremony, people made the short walk to the Christ Church cemetery. Reverends from the two churches unveiled a headstone commemorating the lives of those who lay below.

Rev. Kyle Wagner of Christ Church Dartmouth said it was a "beautiful feeling" to see the headstone finally unveiled.

"When members of Christ Church recognized this injustice, there was a real deep sense of need to right this wrong," Wagner said. "And so over the last year or so, we've met many times and have planned what we were going to do to recognize the people who have gone before us."

Rev. Emmanuel Mutale of the Victoria Road United Baptist Church agreed.

"We basically came to demonstrate that human life should be respected at all levels," he said. "And so it's unfortunate that some of our people were treated other than they should have been treated."

Remembering The Avenue

Adrienne Lucas remembers The Avenue.

She remembers the woods, the berries, the wildflowers, skating at Birch Cove in the winter and swimming in the lake. Most of all, she remembers the voices of her family and her elders.

In 1998, Lucas wrote her thesis on the community where she had grown up. She didn't want The Avenue to be forgotten.

Adrienne Lucas
Adrienne Lucas

The Avenue was located at the top of Crichton Avenue. She found evidence of its existence on a 1888 map of the area, though she said Black settlers probably would have come there as far back as 1812.

"It's incorporated into Crichton Park, and people don't even know the history that it was a Black community," Lucas said.

She said it was a wonderful, thriving place to grow up.

"We were able to develop our sense of identity from that community because at the time we were growing up and before there was a lot of exclusion of people of colour from the mainstream," Lucas said.

"And so to grow up in a community of people like yourself really informs your sense of identity."

However, not everything on The Avenue was idyllic.

The community was subject to civic and environmental racism: the city wouldn't run water and sewer lines there until the 1960s, they placed a stone crusher there in 1931, and a garbage dump nearby in the 1940s.

"We didn't have any of the amenities that people just basically down the street had," Lucas said.

"The men would come home from work and put on their best suit and trek down to city hall and try to convince them that … they needed to give services where they lived because they were paying their taxes. And they just … didn't."

Dartmouth expanded after the Second World War and encroached on the edges of The Avenue.

By the 1970s, developers were trying to convince the people of the community to sell their land. Lucas said many of the residents of The Avenue didn't have access to a good education and were manipulated into selling.

Adrienne Lucas
Adrienne Lucas

Some developers decided to build apartment complexes. That's when the eight graves were dug up.

"For me, what happened to that graveyard from The Avenue never should have happened because it was an historic site, so those graves never should have been dug up in the first place." Lucas said.

She said that while the headstone commemoration is a great step, she wants more to be done to recognize The Avenue in the area where it existed.

The municipality installed an interpretive sign at Birch Cove, but there's barely a sign of the community that once thrived at the top of Crichton Avenue.

"I think it's important to know, number one, that there was a Black community out there because a lot of people who live up in that area have no idea. So, it's important to understand our history."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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