Recently I joined a friend to visit the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia in Cherry Brook. Since moving to Halifax from India, I’ve been visiting museums and galleries, trying hard to learn about my new home. I was excited; this was an overdue stop on my itinerary.
I expected to see a big museum but it turned out to be a small building set in charming surroundings. A sign there proudly proclaimed that the Freedom Stone was dedicated to the memory of Black Nova Scotians’ ancestors and their quest for liberty.
The Centre opened in 1983 to protect, preserve, and promote the history (dating back to the 1600s) and culture of African Nova Scotians. It is also a cultural gathering place.
I was told that the first recorded Black person to come to Canada was an African named Mathieu de Coste who arrived in 1608, serving as an interpreter of the Mi’kmaq language to the governor of Acadia. There’s a portrait of de Coste in the museum. A few thousand Africans arrived in Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Muster Book of Free Blacks of Birchtown and The Book of Negroes provide valuable details of those early arrivals.
The Book of Negros is a document created by Brigadier General Samuel Birch that records names and descriptions of 3,000 Black Loyalists, enslaved Africans who escaped to British territory during the American Revolution and were evacuated to Nova Scotia as free people.
Racism and slavery are sensitive topics for discussions. But at the Black Cultural Centre, these topics are available to visitors for discussion and were presented with great national pride. The artifacts in the centre of the museum and the different posters took me back to grimmer times. It helped me better understand African Nova Scotia history. I spent an afternoon there and wished I had the whole day to study, admire, and appreciate all the exhibits and artifacts.
The museum unfolds the history of a marginalized people, enduring hardships and heartbreaks but keeping an unbroken spirit. I felt like I was moving around with all those people represented in the museum. I learned about the lives and feelings of those first settlers as they cleared the forests and planted crops, building new lives; generations leading to athletes who triumphed in their fields, and acclaimed entertainers and artists. I thought of people laughing with their families, tears falling from a mother’s eyes as her child was carried away to the burial ground. The experience was deeply emotional.
The museum’s stories are of pride and resilience. It tells of people who survived centuries of oppression and continue to fight all challenges and injustices meted out to them.
“We shall overcome, we shall overcome, someday.” I could hear the famous gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s booming voice filling the museum. She was singing with all her might, her voice piercing every heart. I had to blink very hard to stop my tears, but they fell anyway. I found kindred spirits there in the museum. I witnessed the true stories of the Black Nova Scotians playing out. Underlying it all was a mixture of triumph, celebration, and gratitude.
I stood for a long time in front of the photograph of William Hall. The Royal Navy sailor from Avonport was the first Black person and first Nova Scotian to win the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award of the British military honours system. I admired the man and his valour, proud that his greatness was recognized by the world. He will always be one of the brilliant stars in the Black Nova Scotian horizon.
The stories of the kings and queens of Africa filled me with awe. As I took leave of all at the museum, I could hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoing around me. And Rabindranath Tagore, my beloved Indian poet, was singing: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”