A local historian says the city should preserve a home where the province’s first Black physician, Dr. Clement Ligoure, operated a clinic and helped victims of the Halifax Explosion.
Last Saturday, Development Options Halifax, a group that says it’s working to preserve the city’s historic, cultural and social identity, and design, hosted a tour through Halifax. The last stop was at a building on North Street that once housed Ligoure’s clinic in the early 1900s. It was at this clinic where Ligoure worked as the sole doctor in the north end, tending to hundreds of severely injured victims of the Halifax Explosion.
The Friends of the Halifax Common have submitted an application to Halifax Regional Municipality to have what remains of that building on North Street designated a historic property. The group hired William Breckenridge to complete the research for the application.
In an interview with the Examiner on Monday, Breckenridge said under the Centre Plan, the area where Ligoure’s former clinic is located has been rezoned. Breckenridge said that “means the height of the buildings can be put way up,” placing a lot of the buildings on the street at risk of demolition.
Breckenridge said registering the building or creating a conservation district would help save it.
“Not to say that those things couldn’t happen, but it would take a great social movement to make it happen,” Breckenridge said.
Coming to Canada
Ligoure was originally from Trinidad, and came to Canada to study medicine at Queens University in Ontario. Queens ended up expelling all of its Black students and barred Black people from future enrolment. Two years later, Ligoure moved to Halifax to start his own clinic.
He was also the publisher of The Atlantic Advocate, a monthly newspaper that was the province’s first media outlet “devoted to the Interests of Colored People.” The first edition was published in April of 1915 and was incorporated a year later. Ligoure took over as publisher from Wilfred A. DeCosta, who joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Ligoure, along with William White, co-founded the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s first and only all-Black military regiment, which served in World War One in a non-combative role overseas. Ligoure helped recruit members.
When the Battalion was first approved on May 11, 1916, Ligoure was slated to become its physician, but was said to have been passed over for a white man, Capt. Dan Murray — grandfather to Nova Scotia singer Anne Murray.
Breckenridge said that Ligoure “never really received credit” for helping found the No. 2 Construction Battalion. When it came to his own enlistment, Ligoure failed his physical exam to join the Battalion by just one point.
“He was supposed to become the battalion’s doctor, but because he was Black, they would have had to make him an officer. That was a no-no,” Breckenridge said.
Halifax Explosion relief effort
In November 2020, Suzanne Rent wrote about Ligoure. Here’s text from a play by David Woods that is based on testimony Ligoure gave to transcriber Archibald MacMechan with the Halifax Disaster Record Office.. (Click here to listen to a audio reenactment of the testimonial):
Immediately after the Explosion, my office was filled with the injured. I was the only doctor in the Cotton Factory and Willow Park district. Very severe cases, jaws cut, noses off. One hand hanging off (this has since been saved). My only assistance was my housekeeper and H.D. Nicholas, a Pullman porter who boarded with me. In spite of the warning of a second explosion I worked steadily till 8 pm. Some people who had been turned away from the hospital came to my office. Seven people spent the night in my office, laid upon blankets. On December 7th, 8th and 9th, I worked steadily both night and day, doing outside work at night. Monday, I went to City Hall and told Lieut. Ryecroft of RSA Medical Relief of the urgent need of a dressing station in his district. There was an immediate response, and I was given two nurses Mrs. Monpetit and Miss Walsh of Montreal to work in my office. Work was still very heavy. Eight more nurses were sent and six to do district work. Also Private Sutherland A.M.C, T. Henso, HMS, and Captain Dr. Parker, assistant M.O. It was called No. 4 Dressing Station. Upwards of 10 people were dressed per day. It carried on until December 28th.
I have not charged a cent to anyone since the Explosion and still do relief work, for which I use a motor. At present I have upwards of 51 cases due to the explosion and the conditions it created. They are scattered over Hungry Hill, the Lady Hammond Road, Willow Park etc. On Sunday December 9th in the blizzard which turned to rain, about 1 am I went to Willow Park. The horse was up to his knees in the drifts. Returned to his office. A woman on Hungry Hill sent for him, saying she was dying of convulsions. I reached her home to find her calmly eating an apple. I returned to my office at 3 am. A man and a woman were waiting for me and arguing as to whom I should accompany home first. One lived on Gottingen the other on Windsor Street. I took the woman home first, thus enraging the man. I attended to both cases arriving home exhausted at 6:15 am, when I snatched half an hour’s sleep.
Breckenridge said he’s currently researching if Ligoure was compensated properly for his work or paid at all by the explosion’s relief committee. Ligoure ended up losing the property after a plumber put a lien on the house.
“You have to think that he was a Black doctor and who knows what they were trying to do at the time,” Breckenridge said. “And we can probably never prove 100%. We have to think that this is 100 years ago and particularly anything to do with a Black person, you know, they may have not kept the records.”
Preserving the past
Despite records of Ligoure’s attempts to buy new properties in Halifax, Breckenridge said little is known about his life following the Halifax Explosion. Ligoure died at age 37 under mysterious circumstances.
“At the end of it, he clearly suffered financially and mentally from the aftermath of the explosion,” Breckenridge said.
Breckenridge said he’s yet to uncover an obituary or any burial records for Ligoure. He said there’s evidence Ligoure may have died either in Halifax or in Trinidad.
“We need to start recognizing more of these different places and buildings that are associated with these forgotten figures of African Nova Scotians, of Indigenous people,” Breckenridge said.
Breckenridge said the African Nova Scotian community should have a say in what happens with the building.
“Perhaps a museum. Maybe the province should buy the building and turn it into an educational centre to learn things. There are multiple channels that could be done,”Breckenridge said.
“Anything but demolishing it. I don’t think that’s the solution.”