The former home office of the province’s first Black physician could soon be recognized as a heritage property.
William Breckenridge is a historian and former member of council’s Heritage Advisory Committee. He said there’s a heritage hearing scheduled for the Jan. 24 meeting of Halifax regional council to potentially register 5812-5814 North St.
That was where Dr. Clement Ligoure, Nova Scotia’s first Black doctor, saw hundreds of patients following the Halifax Explosion. The building is at risk of demolition, and heritage registration would make it harder for the owner to tear it down.
Breckenridge researched the building for Friends of the Halifax Common, a local advocacy group that submitted the application. At a meeting in November, the Heritage Advisory Committee scored the building 65 out of 100 points and recommended council register the property.
“What I’ve been told is the owner, Louie Lawen [of Paramount Management], will be opposing the heritage application,” Breckenridge said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner.
The Examiner left a voicemail message for Lawen but did not hear back.
Though the hearing is open to the public, Breckenridge said that, following a city staff presentation, Lawen and city council members will be the only ones permitted to speak. Council will then vote on the heritage designation.
Ligoure’s story was brought to light in the 1980s by artist and historian David Woods, who was doing research for Black History Month at the Nova Scotia Public Archives.
Woods recently received an honourary degree from Dalhousie University for his work as an artist and historian. Woods mentioned his research about Ligoure in his acceptance speech.
“If Halifax chooses to ignore that level of history in one of the most defining events in its entire history, the Halifax Explosion, that to me would be unconscionable,” Woods said in an interview with Examiner.
Woods said he plans to send in a letter in support of the designation as requested by Friends of the Halifax Common. He said he’ll also be encouraging other Black Nova Scotian community members, institutions, and organizations to get involved in supporting Ligoure’s memory and legacy.
“Why did it take 100 years to even bring recognition to this man?” Woods asked. “When I got involved in his story in the 1980s he was completely unknown. So, if we can now get to the point where not only is he known, his heroism is known, there’s an award now that’s given in his name, all of this was always available and not once was Dr. Ligoure even mentioned in the story of the Halifax Explosion.”
A soldier’s untold story
Ligoure was born in Trinidad in 1886. As a young adult he moved to New York, then to Canada to study medicine at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
He was the last Black student to graduate from Queen’s before they expelled and barred Black students from attending the university for close to half a century.
When the No. 2 Construction Battalion was authorized, Ligoure was encouraged to move to Nova Scotia under the sole purpose to help recruit members for the all-Black military regiment.
“You gotta remember the No. 2 Construction Battalion was authorized but it didn’t exist. So, when they came here they were the ones that were going around advocating for this, giving speeches, raising the troops essentially,” Woods said.
“Dr. [William] White was promised that he would be the captain, and Ligoure was promised that he would be the medical officer in exchange for basically free recruitment labour.”
Woods said Ligoure had given up clinical experience to complete his degree by moving to Halifax because he would have eventually received it serving with the Battalion overseas in the First World War.
“His whole purpose to come here was for the No. 2 Construction Battalion. It wasn’t that Halifax was on his radar; he didn’t have any connections here.”
“When they finally called the Battalion up for service, they basically had decided that they didn’t want to use Dr. Ligoure and kind of fabricated the whole idea of him failing by a point.”
“They basically said, ‘Don’t tell him this because it may affect recruiting.’ [Meanwhile] the white medical officer who replaced him was already in place.”
Woods said Ligoure’s “whole circle disappeared” when the Battalion was deployed, including Ligoure’s fellow reporters and contributors to the Atlantic Advocate, the province’s first Black newspaper that was used to help recruit members to the battallion. Ligoure eventually took over as the publisher for the Atlantic Advocate.
Ligoure opened a private medical clinic known as the Amanda Hospital in the building on North Street.
It was out of his home office where Ligoure would have completed his clinical studies as a doctor, and where he continued to publish the Atlantic Advocate.
Woods said had Ligoure not been cheated out of serving for the No. 2 Construction Battalion, he would not have been working as a doctor in the North End of Halifax when the Halifax Explosion happened.
Archibald MacMechan, a transcriber with the Halifax Disaster Record Office, once interviewed Ligoure where he described what it was like tending to the severely injured victims of the Halifax Explosion, day and night, and free of charge.
“He was seeing over 200 people a day,” Woods said. “I don’t think he actually slept for two weeks. He actually completely zoned out just based on the needs of people. He completely gave his life to that for which he was not compensated at all. It was basically free labour. I think the only thing he ever got was gas money.”
“So, the poor guy, can you imagine going through all that, basically never receiving a cent, and then his business failed because he depended on patrons. And the whites went right back to not patronizing him after [it] was all over. So, within the year he had to close the office.”
Woods said Ligoure’s former clinic is likely the last known location that served as a dressing station following the Halifax Explosion whose building still exists today in Halifax.
Ligoure died just five years after the Halifax Explosion at age 32.
“We had a whole group of [Black] people in the early 1900s that were publishers, medical workers, followers of Marcus Garvey, builders of institutions, who did not see themselves as limited.”
Halifax is at a ‘critical junction’
Breckenridge said that Halifax is currently at a “critical junction.”
“Do we want a city that is just all glass and concrete? Or do we want to respect something of our place in culture and history?,” said Breckenridge. “I don’t think it’s much to ask for four or five buildings to be kept.”
Through a press release on its website, Friends of the Halifax Common are encouraging people to write to council asking them to support the motion to give heritage designation to the Ligoure’s former home and clinic.