Two years ago, when the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman was announced, I was traveling in Barrington, Nova Scotia, far from my home in New York City. Surrounded by warm and welcoming friends in the "Lobster Capital of Canada," the news leveled me and I longed to be among others who understood the sense of injustice Black Americans felt. A lone person of color in a friendly but close-knit community of Maritime Canadians, I found a strange sense of solace when I visited the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in neighboring Birchtown, which was then a rather makeshift exhibition in a circa 1835 schoolhouse. There, I learned the history of the Black Loyalists, American slaves who supported the British in the American Revolutionary War in exchange for their freedom. Their remarkable story was recently dramatized in the television miniseries The Book of Negroes, based on the best selling historical novel, Someone Knows My Name, by Canadian author, Lawrence Hill which aired both in the U.S. and Canada.
Theirs was an epic and tragic journey--the brutal irony of some Black Loyalists who made it all the way to Sierra Leone and founded the colony of Freetown in 1792, only to be re-enslaved, continues to haunt Black Americans and Canadians who experience state-sanctioned violence that triggers historical memories of past injustices.
Visiting the exhibition in the Birchtown schoolhouse back in the summer of 2013 revealed the unfathomable hardships the Loyalists underwent--about 3000 of them fleeing New York City for Nova Scotia after supporting the British, surviving austere winters by building Pit Houses (literally holes dug in the ground with tree-branch roofs), enduring the discrimination of either being barred from employment or forced to work for no pay, and then, for some, finally making the journey to Sierre Leone where they established Freetown--gave me a measure of perspective on the deep sadness and alienation I felt in the wake of Trayvon Martin's murder and Zimmerman's acquittal. When I learned that some American slaves who traveled to Nova Scotia in search of freedom and then journeyed on to Sierre Leone because that freedom was denied, were eventually re-enslaved and trafficked back to the U.S., I was overwhelmed by the staggering cruelty the Loyalists endured.
This summer, as we marked another anniversary, the death of Michael Brown, and as the tragedies of Ferguson, Missouri, and Charleston, South Carolina, alongside numerous other scenes of racialized violence continued to play out across news outlets and weigh heavily on the hearts of Black Americans and their allies, I returned to Birchtown and visited the brand new, 4.6 million dollar Black Loyalist Heritage Centre which reopened on June 5 with an inaugural celebration that included a reading from Lawrence Hill. While the previous wooden schoolhouse exhibit was barebones, the new site is high tech, beautifully designed, and awe-inspiring. At the Centre, staff member Jessie Corringan handed me a card that invited guests to follow the story of a Black Loyalist, Betsey Herbert, who was born in 1757 and who journeyed from slavery to freedom.
Jessie walked me through the museum's interactive video installments and artifacts including a timeline of the Loyalists' journeys, a digital copy of the actual Book of Negroes (a detailed log documenting the New York evacuees), and costumes from the miniseries. But I was just as interested in Jessie's story. "I'm one of seven Black Loyalist families still living in Birchtown," she told me with a direct stare and the trademark singsong accent of the region. Jessie recounted that she had attended school in the old schoolhouse, and that St. Paul's Church, part of the museum's compound of exhibits, was her church. From her I also learned a recent chapter of the Black Loyalists' struggle; the schoolhouse only served as a temporary museum after arsonists burned down the original heritage site in 2006, destroying valuable archival materials. Part of a string of hate crimes against Black Nova Scotians, learning of the destruction of the museum site broadsided me like the news of the burning of several African American churches in the wake of the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Much like their ancestors, the contemporary Black Loyalist Heritage Society responded to the burning down of their Centre not by losing hope, but with determination to rebuild. The iniquities the Black Loyalists and their descendants suffered are poignant illustrations of the recurring history of racialized violence Black people have sustained in the U.S., Canada, and across the globe. Students of Black American history recall Emmett Till's vicious murder when we consider Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. Dylann Storm Roof, the young White man arrested for the murders at Emanuel AME Church reportedly told his victims, "You are raping our women and taking over the country," conjuring racist stereotypes used in the late 19th century to justify lynching Black people. If a twenty-one-year-old Southern White man living in 21st Century America relied on age-old racist rhetoric to justify slaughtering innocent people, we should not be surprised that history continues to repeat itself along the agonizing road to full citizenship that contemporary Black people must traverse. This circuitous history is evident in the nickname Black Nova Scotians continue to use for their province, "The Mississippi of the North," and in incidents such as the 2010 burning of a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple, accompanied by shouts of "die nigger die."
To be sure African-Canadians and African-Americans share a common history of racialized violence and resilience in the face of heartbreaking injustices. Those of us who live today can find strength in sites such as the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre and in the fortitude of our predecessors--both in the U.S. and in Canada.
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