The Book of Negroes by Canadian author Lawrence Hill is a powerful novel that tells the story of a slave who is kidnapped from her village in Africa, sold into slavery in America and her struggle to return to her homeland.
In her journey, following the American Revolution, the main character arrives in Shelburne, Nova Scotia as one of thousands of Black Loyalists - a large group of African-American slaves who escaped their masters to British lines and were promised freedom. They would go on to found Birchtown, a village next to Shelburne, which developed into one of the largest free Black settlements in North America. But the Black Loyalists faced discrimination from other colonists and in July 1784 the Shelburne Riots broke out when white Loyalists attacked the residents of Birchtown. This riot is believed to be the first race riots in Canada and possibly one of the earliest recorded race riots in North America.
As someone who is from Nova Scotia, and lived for a time in Shelburne when she was young, this reporter never knew this terrible history of a place she once lived before she read Hill’s book.
There is a lot of hidden history that many of us don’t know about because its a history that is never written about in the textbooks.
It’s the same thing with Africville, an African-Canadian village located just north of Halifax and founded in the mid-18th century. The City of Halifax demolished the once-prosperous seaside community in the 1960s.
This reporter is pretty sure she was never taught about Africville while she was in school either.
History is not just about learning facts and dates. It’s learning about people and how history has impacted them. How major events of history can leave a terrible legacy that can cast a long shadow.
While textbooks don’t always tell the full history, pop culture lately has been helping to fill in these gaps, shedding light on long forgotten tragedies of history.
The HBO limited series Watchman highlighted the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, where mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While the exact numbers are unknown, it’s estimated between 75 to 300 people dead as a result of the riots.
Many viewers were unfamiliar with the riots and the show revived a buried history not often told in American textbooks. Another HBO series, Lovecraft Country, also featured the massacre in one of their episodes.
Black History Month and movements like Black Lives Matter are also helping to shine light on additional unknown histories. Even right here in PEI.
After thousands of people marched through the streets of Charlottetown in June in solidarity with Black Lives Matter demonstrations, participants gathered at Rochford Square, a place once known as The Bog.
The Bog was home to as many as 200 members of the Island’s Black community in Charlottetown’s west end. Today, there remains no trace of the neighbourhood and the community where it once stood.
While the debate over what to do with the statue of Sir John A Macdonald continues, there needs to be a discussion on how to recognize this other forgotten history also located right in the heart of the Island’s capital city.
It’s impossible to know all the history of the world, but learning the whole history of the place you call home can be an important step into understanding others and how they might perceive the world.
And the world could always use a little more understanding.