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Celebrating our story (at last) 

Nova Scotia's black history is rich and remarkable—Birchtown was North America's largest settlement of free blacks when it was founded in 1783—but rarely acknowledged.

Shortly before 10pm on March 31, 2006, residents along the Old Birchtown Road near Shelburne reported seeing what looked like a white Pontiac Sunfire speeding away from the site of the one-storey wooden bungalow that housed the offices of Nova Scotia's Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Within minutes of the car's disappearance into the night, hot flames licked up an outside wall and into the building's eaves, setting the roof ablaze and eventually causing parts of it to collapse into the offices below.

Inside those offices—inside computer hard drives, cardboard boxes and metal filing cabinets—the priceless fruits of almost two decades of research into the often ignored, always marginalized history of Nova Scotia's black community melted, burned, scorched, charred and disappeared into smoke.

It didn't take the Mounties long to conclude the fire had been deliberately set.

But was it a hate crime?

Elizabeth Cromwell, the president of the heritage society, turns that question around. "Why," she asks, not unreasonably, "would anyone burn down a building belonging to a group of black people?"

It wouldn't have been the first time black people in Nova Scotia were targeted for nothing more than being who they are. Or the last. Just consider last weekend's cross burning outside the home of a mixed-race couple in Hants County. Or this week's protest march at City Hall to bring attention to the ongoing discrimination black municipal workers say they face in the workplace.

Birchtown was supposed to be different. During the American Revolution, the British promised America's black slaves their freedom—more, it should be acknowledged, as a military tactic than from some lofty commitment to racial equality—in exchange for abandoning their white masters and fighting for the crown. Thousands did.

But in 1783 after the British lost, the victors demanded the return of "the negros or other property of the American inhabitants." British negotiators in Paris were happy enough to send their erstwhile black friends back to vengeful former masters, but Sir Guy Carleton, the man in charge of the British evacuation in New York, objected. He ordered one of his generals, Samuel Birch, to compile a "Book of Negroes," a detailed listing of the 3,000 freed black men, women and children deemed eligible to sail in the British evacuation of New York.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the 1,500 of those who settled on the rocky edge of the new white loyalist city of Shelburne, NS, named their community in honour of the general whose precious certificates they carried. Birchtown instantly became the largest settlement of free blacks in North America. But there were other freed black communities in the colony too, in places such as Tracadie, Weymouth and Brindley Town.

None of them were really free, of course. The British had promised the freed blacks land. But then offered them only the rockiest, most barren scraps of a generally unfriendly land, if they gave them any at all. Some white loyalists even tried to grab that from them. Unlike more well-to-do white loyalists, the blacks arrived with no money or resources. That meant many ended up as indentured servants (slaves by another name) for whites in Shelburne. Some whites even pocketed the rations the British designated for the freed blacks.

Because the desperate blacks were prepared to work for less than the almost-as-desperate, disbanded white soldiers, the soldiers attacked them. In July 1784, the first race riot in North America took place in Shelburne. It lasted a week.

Things didn't get better after that. There were fires and famines, recession and drought. Whites moved on; blacks died of starvation.

By January 1792, the colony's black loyalists had endured all they could of British freedom in frigid Nova Scotia. More than 1,100—including 550 from Birchtown and Shelburne—set sail from Halifax in an armada bound for Sierra Leone where they were, once again, promised they would be free.

Those who remained in what was left of Birchtown—as well as in other black and poor communities huddled on the outskirts of richer white communities—hunkered down, survived, made lives and communities. For two centuries, they—and their history—were either ignored or dismissed.

To cite but one example: In 1963, Birchtown residents approached the Nova Scotia Historic Sites Advisory Board seeking historic designation for their community. The board's chair, prominent author Will R. Bird, wrote to the then-premier, Robert Stanfield, dismissing Birchtown as "a sort of shack town, a settlement of the slaves who came with the loyalists and were left there by the loyalists who moved on." The community, he suggested, was not important enough—or white enough—to be considered historic.

Elizabeth Cromwell, who grew up in the area, knows all about the ways in which black history was marginalized in Shelburne. "They're very good," she says simply, "when they're talking to your face." After being mostly invisible in official celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the loyalists' 1783 arrival in Shelburne, the few hundred remaining members of the local black community began to band together in the mid-1980s. Although the traditional United Empire Loyalists' organizations were "upset we were organizing," Cromwell recalls, "that just gave us another little push."

So too did government plans to situate—what else?—a landfill in Birchtown.

Their success in stopping the landfill not only led to the incorporation of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society in 1991 but it also sparked an archaeological dig on land just a few hundred yards from the Cromwell family home. Researchers uncovered a treasure trove of more than 16,000 "exceptional" artifacts from the late 1700s, which helped cement Birchtown's place in black history—and in Canadian history.

By 1996, the group had convinced the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board to finally erect a plaque to recognize Birchtown as "a proud symbol of the struggle by blacks...for justice and dignity."

The society also began to create spaces—acquiring an old church and a one-room schoolhouse from the 1830s—to store and display their growing collection of information and artifacts of the black experience. It partnered with the Nova Scotia Museum to mount a traveling exhibit called Remembering Black Loyalists, Black Communities. The exhibit ended up on permanent display in Birchtown. The society also developed an 800-metre Heritage Walking Trail for visitors, which circled around the museum, past a black burying ground and a replica of the sort of pit house where the early residents might have lived. Its first official visitor was the then-governor general, Adrienne Clarkson.

In 2000, the society hired experts to train four members of the local black community to conduct genealogical research in order to handle the ever growing number of calls from around the world asking for help in tracing their black family histories. They began to put together a Black Loyalist Registry, identifying those descended from the original settlers. More than 2,000 self-identified black loyalist descendants joined the society.

The operational hub for this growing web of activity was the small, non-descript $66,000 bungalow on the Old Birchtown Road, built in the mid-1990s with the help of an ACOA grant.

Or at least it was, until fire destroyed it.

Police refused to call the fire a hate crime. The criminal code, which defines a hate crime as one designed to intimidate or harm an identifiable group of people, provides for stiffer sentences for such crimes. Within weeks of the fire, however, an RCMP spokesperson confidently told a reporter from Shunpiking that investigators knew who did it and "the motive of the individual involved...was not race-related."

Eight months later, police finally charged Gaylord Avery Perry, a 41-year-old local ne'er-do-well, with the crime. Perry was already in jail, serving time for a laundry list of unrelated offences: "assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon, criminal assault, uttering threats, criminal harassment, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle, committing an offense while operating a motor vehicle, a breach of undertaking, causing a disturbance and evading a peace officer."

The Black Loyalist Heritage Society arson case never went to trial. In February 2008, the prosecutor stayed the charges because he wasn't convinced he could get a conviction based on the evidence "available." One key prosecution witness had apparently refused to testify.

While that decision may not matter much in the criminal justice scheme of things—Perry was already back in jail, convicted of assaulting his parents by throwing a tea kettle at his mother and beating his 70-year-old father with a shovel—staying the charges means there will never be a judicial airing of the reasons for the crime.

While there are no shortage of rumours in the community about what really happened, the one thing that is clear is that whoever decided to burn down "a building belonging to a group of black people" didn't do it randomly or accidentally.

And publicity about the fire itself also brought out even more crazies. "It was a terrible time," Crowell recalls. "There were horrible telephone calls, threats, insults..." The police traced much of it to the United States, but there was local fallout, too. "Things were written on the side of the building, or in the snow..."

Ironically, however, the fire may yet turn out to be as much an opportunity as it was, quite clearly, a disaster. Or not.

The fire—and the publicity it generated—brought the community, white and black, together. "This," says Elizabeth Cromwell, "was not the way the community wanted to be seen."

The congregation of Shelburne's Christ Anglican Church—which can also trace its roots back to the town's earliest days—donated $10,000 to the rebuilding campaign. Acadia University offered $6,000 and two senior students to help "reconstitute" the society's destroyed genealogical records. The owners of the Whirligig, Shelburne's popular new and used bookstore, organized a sponsor-a-book program, inviting its customers to help buy replacement books for the Society's burned-out library. They raised more than $3,000. David Bradley, a Halifax-based computer guru, even volunteered what ended up being 80 hours of his time to rescue almost all of the priceless data stored on the society's burned computer hard drives.

During a successful June 2006 Birchtown Healing Weekend, staged by the society to both raise funds and also promote a greater spirit of community, Stanley Jacklin, the society's then-president, told the Herald: "A lot of good things do come from bad things, I guess...We will rebuild and become bigger and better than ever."

Even before the fire, it was clear the society had not only outgrown its too-small bungalow-office space but that it needed bigger and better space than a renovated old one-room schoolhouse in which to display its valuable collection for the growing number of tourists, black and white, who wanted to understand the black loyalist experience.

In 2000, there'd been ambitious talk of building a new $9-million interpretive, tourism and community economic development project in Birchtown. But the best federal and provincial governments were prepared to offer then was $200,000 to help "preserve rural culture."

The project died.

And then the bungalow burned down.

Today, a more modest $3-million proposal is working its way through the long and complicated funding food chain.

Cobbling together seed money from Canadian Heritage, Nova Scotia Museums and the province's department of economic and rural development, the society hired a team of Halifax-based architects—lead architects Peter Henry and Christine Macy, the dean of Dalhousie's architecture department, and project architect Judy-Ann Obersi—to come up with a design for a new centre that could not only combine exhibit and display space with offices, meeting rooms, a theatre and gift shop, but also represent the black experience architecturally.

The result is visually stunning and aesthetically pleasing. The exterior design incorporates traditional granaries of west Africa, which is where many of the black loyalists began their journey as captured slaves. The granary motif will serve as both a building feature and also as display cases for artifacts.

The low-rise building will be built into its surroundings and covered with a gently sloping "green" roof. That will be environmentally friendly but also a living reminder of the pit-house architectural style the first residents were forced to adopt. A massive curving stone wall, reminiscent of the remnants of stone walls found built around Birchtown, will lead visitors in to and out of the main exhibit area, and may even include the names of all of those recorded in the original Book of Negroes etched into the stone.

The architects' blueprints are expected to be ready by the end of March, and then the real work of raising the money to make it a reality will begin. Cromwell's group has already met with the provincial minister, made its first overtures to the cabinet.

"Money is always short when we come to the table," she allows. "But it's time for Canadians to step up and take ownership of this history. It's not just our history; it's Canadian history."

Are we finally ready to claim it?

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