In the dead of winter, 230 years ago Saturday, nearly 1,200 Black loyalists set out on a daunting journey from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone.
What the seafarers endured and fought for is just as relevant today as it was on that January day in 1792, says high school student Zion Ash.
He's part of a project to mark the historic exodus of Black loyalists from Nova Scotia, and remember its legacy.
"I know that they fought for our future and they struggled to make things better for us," the Grade 11 student at Auburn Drive High School told CBC Radio's Mainstreet this week.
Ash is among the many Nova Scotians who've written letters, addressed to passengers on the 15 ships, as part of the #1792Project, which began as an art installation for Halifax's Nocturne Festival.
The project has now turned into a province-wide effort to educate Nova Scotians about the historic event and the profound impact it's had on communities here and in Sierra Leone.
"Today in Canada, a person of colour with the same degree as a white person makes 87 cents for every dollar a white person makes so I believe that the stuff that went on back then is still really relevant to us today and that we should learn about it," Ash said.
'In search of dignity'
More than 3,000 Black loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia in the early 1780s in exchange for supporting the British during the American Revolutionary War.
"They were promised land, they were promised jobs … and they did not receive basically any of it," said Samara Hudson-Ash, a Grade 11 student who is also involved in the project.
Faced with colonial racism and violence, they had little choice but to leave this province, says Dr. Afua Cooper.
She's a Black studies professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax who wrote and produced a video tribute to the seafarers called "15 Ships to Sierra Leone."
"They were in search of dignity, and I think that's an important word," Cooper said. "That's what they wanted."
Listen to Dr. Afua Cooper's full interview with CBC Radio's Mainstreet:
The exodus to Freetown, Sierra Leone, was organized by Nigerian-born Thomas Peters, who Cooper calls fierce, uncompromising and a visionary.
Peters was determined to empower his community, Cooper said, and hold British officials accountable for not holding up their end of the bargain.
He even travelled to Britain to make his case to officials in person. Thanks to his efforts, it was proposed that Black loyalists settle in Sierra Leone and help found the second British colony in Africa.
Seventy-nine families signed up within days, and on Jan. 15, 1792 the group of ministers, teachers, soldiers, craftsmen and their families, set sail aboard 15 ships.
But the Black loyalists' struggles for autonomy continued even after they arrived in West Africa, said Freetown musician Charlie Haffner.
Haffner and his band the Freetown Players wrote a song about Peters and his journey from Nova Scotia for their album, Rising From Our Ashes.
"When they came and they happened to fall under the rule of the British, everything backfired," he said.
About six months after arriving in Sierra Leone, Peters got sick and died, Haffner said.
He hopes his songs help share Peters's story and educate people of all generations about one of the heroes of Black history.
Listen to interviews with three Nova Scotian students about the #1792Project:
Despite many hardships, Cooper said, the group who arrived in Sierra Leone was able to build a thriving community.
"It did become a free town," she said. "And these Nova Scotians, they produced some of the first professionals in West Africa — lawyers, doctors, politicians."
Province, municipalities proclaim the day
Karen Hudson, the principal of Auburn Drive High School and one of the organizers of the #1792Project, made a presentation to a Halifax Regional Municipality committee meeting last month.
Halifax council, as well as the province of Nova Scotia and several other municipalities, have now answered Hudson's call and officially proclaimed Jan. 15, 2022, as the Day of the Black Loyalist Exodus: 15 Ships to Sierra Leone.
Hudson made the presentation to council alongside some of her students, Zion Ash, Samara Hudson-Ash and Ianiesha Simmons, who read from their letters to the seafarers.
"All children need to know their histories and that they have stories to tell," Hudson said during the meeting.
Ash said he's learned a lot from taking part in the project.
"One of the major lessons I take is staying close to the people that you love and the people that help you," he said. "The Black loyalists, with what they had, they still worked together to build homes and to build their community."
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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