Group wants heritage designation for house of Nova Scotia's first Black doctor

·4 min read

A local historian says the city should preserve a home where the province's first Black physician, Dr. Clement Ligoure, operated a clinic and helped victims of the Halifax Explosion.

Last Saturday, Development Options Halifax, a group that says it's working to preserve the city’s historic, cultural and social identity, and design, hosted a tour through Halifax. The last stop was at a building on North Street that once housed Ligoure’s clinic in the early 1900s. It was at this clinic where Ligoure worked as the sole doctor in the north end, tending to hundreds of severely injured victims of the Halifax Explosion.

The Friends of the Halifax Common have submitted an application to Halifax Regional Municipality to have what remains of that building on North Street designated a historic property. The group hired William Breckenridge to complete the research for the application.

In an interview on Monday, Breckenridge said under the Centre Plan, the area where Ligoure’s former clinic is located has been rezoned. Breckenridge said that “means the height of the buildings can be put way up,” placing a lot of the buildings on the street at risk of demolition.

Breckenridge said registering the building or creating a conservation district would help save it.

"Not to say that those things couldn't happen, but it would take a great social movement to make it happen," Breckenridge said.

Ligoure was originally from Trinidad, and came to Canada to study medicine at Queens University in Ontario. Queens ended up expelling all of its Black students and barred Black people from future enrolment. Two years later, Ligoure moved to Halifax to start his own clinic.

He was also the publisher of The Atlantic Advocate, a monthly newspaper that was the province’s first media outlet “devoted to the Interests of Colored People.” The first edition was published in April of 1915 and was incorporated a year later. Ligoure took over as publisher from Wilfred A. DeCosta, who joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

Ligoure, along with William White, co-founded the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s first and only all-Black military regiment, which served in World War One in a non-combative role overseas. Ligoure helped recruit members.

When the Battalion was first approved on May 11, 1916, Ligoure was slated to become its physician, but was said to have been passed over for a white man, Capt. Dan Murray — grandfather to Nova Scotia singer Anne Murray.

Breckenridge said that Ligoure “never really received credit” for helping found the No. 2 Construction Battalion. When it came to his own enlistment, Ligoure failed his physical exam to join the Battalion by just one point.

"He was supposed to become the battalion's doctor, but because he was Black, they would have had to make him an officer. That was a no-no," Breckenridge said.

In November 2020, Suzanne Rent wrote about Ligoure. Here is one of Ligoure's quotes directly from the Atlantic Advocate where he wrote about the Halifax Explosion:

Breckenridge said he's currently researching if Ligoure was compensated properly for his work or paid at all by the explosion's relief committee. Ligoure ended up losing the property after a plumber put a lien on the house.

"You have to think that he was a Black doctor and who knows what they were trying to do at the time," Breckenridge said. "And we can probably never prove 100%. We have to think that this is 100 years ago and particularly anything to do with a Black person, you know, they may have not kept the records."

Despite records of Ligoure's attempts to buy new properties in Halifax, Breckenridge said little is known about his life following the Halifax Explosion. Ligoure died at age 37 under mysterious circumstances.

"At the end of it, he clearly suffered financially and mentally from the aftermath of the explosion," Breckenridge said.

Breckenridge said he’s yet to uncover an obituary or any burial records for Ligoure. He said there’s evidence Ligoure may have died either in Halifax or in Trinidad.

"We need to start recognizing more of these different places and buildings that are associated with these forgotten figures of African Nova Scotians, of Indigenous people," Breckenridge said.

Breckenridge said the African Nova Scotian community should have a say in what happens with the building.

"Perhaps a museum. Maybe the province should buy the building and turn it into an educational centre to learn things. There are multiple channels that could be done," Breckenridge said.

"Anything but demolishing it. I don't think that's the solution."

Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Halifax Examiner