One name the public suggested for the renaming of Cornwallis Street in Halifax is Richard Preston, who was the founder and first reverend of the newly named New Horizons Baptist Church, located on Cornwallis Street.
Originally called the African Chapel — and later the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church — the church was founded on April 14, 1832 and was one of the first Black churches in Nova Scotia. Construction of the church began shortly after Preston returned to Halifax from England where he was working to become ordained minister. The church was completed in 1833.
In January, Frances Willick with CBC reported that Preston’s name was one of the many suggestions made by respondents of an online survey by HRM.
In addition to being the reverend of the African Chapel for nearly 30 years, Preston is also credited with founding the former African Abolition Society, several Black churches throughout the province, as well as the African United Baptist Association (AUBA), the longest-running — and still-standing — Black political organization in the Maritimes.
Cornwallis Street is named for Edward Cornwallis, who was the governor of Nova Scotia from 1749-52. During that time, Cornwallis issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.
The city’s renaming of Cornwallis Street follows recommendations from a committee that proposed changes to the city’s commemoration of Cornwallis. The renaming is also in lockstep with New Horizon’s Baptist Church taking the lead in distancing itself from Cornwallis and his legacy.
Preston’s early life
Dr. Isaac Saney, who is a professor of African Nova Scotian history and African Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University and Saint Mary’s University, said he often teaches his students about Preston’s legacy.
“I teach him as sort of the founder of the Black Nova Scotian community,” Saney said in an interview with the Examiner.
Saney said little is known about Preston’s early life before he arrived in Halifax when he was in his mid-20s.
Preston was raised as a slave in Virginia, and was likely known simply as Richard. His biological father was a plantation owner, and his mother was an enslaved woman of African descent.
Preston was able to buy his freedom, get an education, and went on to preach at slave plantations throughout Virginia.
He and his mother were eventually separated by international borders when several thousand former American slaves traveled from Chesapeake Bay, with roughly half of them destined for Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.
“The story is she might have been sold by the plantation owner,” Saney said. “So [Preston] came looking for her. She had come [to Nova Scotia] in one of the waves of Black Refugees after the War of 1812.”
According to oral history, while searching for lodging in Preston outside of Halifax one night, Preston arrived at his mother’s door who recognized him by a scar on his face.
“He finds her in Preston that’s why he took the name, Preston,” Saney said.
A new beginning
A white Methodist preacher named John Burton was the only preacher who allowed Black worshipers into his church in Halifax.
“There was segregation,” Saney said. “They weren’t allowed to worship with whites, so Burton was sort of fulfilling this role.”
Preston became Burton’s apprentice, and eventually, Burton helped arrange for Preston to get his licence to preach.
“Preston saw the potential of the Black communities, he saw the potential of them establishing their own organizations,” Saney said. “Particularly, in a society that was rejecting Blackness, that, in a sense, was trying relegate and marginalize it.”
Eventually, Saney said Preston and Burton began competing with one another to the point where Preston ended up eclipsing Burton’s influence in the Black community.
“One of the things I often teach about Richard Preston is not only is he the founder of the African Nova Scotian community, he can be seen to be an anticipator of what we might call Black Nationalism, at least in a Nova Scotian context,” Saney said.
Blacks had been living as slaves Nova Scotia for about 30 years prior to the influx of Black Refugees of the War of 1812. The Black Loyalists too were former slaves, who were promised freedom, land, and equality in exchange for their loyalty and war service to Britain in the American War of Independence.
Preston traveled throughout the province in an effort to organize the different groups of former slaves, Black Loyalists, and their descendants, and the new influx of Black Refugees of the War of 1812.
Saney said Preston’s aim was to help them recognize and realize their shared interests as Black people in their new Nova Scotia.
“He’s traveling through all these different separate communities, despaired Black communities that were deliberately settled in ways that were isolated from the townships and typical Nova Scotian towns,” Saney said. “You have to think about him traveling back in those times when the infrastructure wasn’t that developed, and plus, as a Black man. But he had a tremendous amount of respect.”
“It seems we have an indication that he’s anticipating the idea that the Black community needs to be led by Black leaders, right. They need to have their own organizations in order to articulate their interests if they’re going to make any kind of advance.”
Eventually, Preston traveled to England to become an ordained minister. While he was overseas, Saney said Preston met and collaborated with various leaders of the abolition movement.
“He gives lectures, and he participates in agitation — all of this plays an important role, among other factors, in pushing forward the Abolition Act of 1833 that brings an end to slavery in the British Empire.”
Preston returned to Halifax and become the minister and leader of the African Chapel, which also served as a Black community meeting space and segregated schoolhouse. Preston continued to travel and organize in the Black communities throughout the province and helped found nearly a dozen additional Black churches. The African Baptist Association was formed on September 1, 1854 and united 12 Black churches, and ultimately, 12 Black communities.
“It’s important to understand that, for the Black community, the only institutional material available was the church itself,” Saney said. “The church had to play multiple roles,” Saney said. “It also became an advocate on issues of getting more land. Later on, after Preston’s death, it becomes an advocate for challenging segregated education.”
In addition to leading the ABA (now the AUBA) and the African Chapel, Preston also founded the African Abolition Society. Though it was said to have “limited success” in helping to end slavery in the US, an essay by Frank Boyd said its aim was also “to involve black Nova Scotians in pressuring for the release of American blacks from slavery, to inform all Nova Scotians of slavery’s cruelties,” and that it did, in fact, manage locally to “identify those who were sympathetic to the Blacks’ cause and to improve racial relations.”
Preston continued to increase the membership of both the African Chapel and the ABA, which went from originally having 12-member churches to 15 at the time of his death.
Richard Preston died on July 16, 1861. He is said to have been buried three days later on Crane’s Hill in Preston, on or near land where there’s now a golf course.
“To call Preston the father of the African Nova Scotian community is not an overstatement,” Saney said. “And he was seen as the leader. He was tremendously well respected. Preston was extremely charismatic, a hard worker, eloquent, articulate individual who could mobilize the community.”
Saney said records indicate he was a “very dapperly dressed and dignified looking man,” with a sense of humour that he also incorporated into his sermons.
“What Richard Preston does by founding churches by traveling to Black Nova Scotian communities, he sort of creates the connections and the material organic connections through the founding of 11, 12 churches.”
Marking the past
The HRM’s process for selecting a new name for Cornwallis Street is ongoing. CBC reported that a shortlist of names will be included in a future survey.
Saney said he has no strong opinions one way or the other about the renaming of Cornwallis Street.
“I mean Richard Preston Street might be a useful name because that’s what the church sits on, and he played such a central role. I mean he was pastor of that church from 1832 until he died in 1861. That’s the mother church of the AUBA, that’s such a critical church. So, it might be useful,” he said.
Saney said he’s working with a group to establish markers and plaques that not only commemorate but also help educate and keep alive the memory of historical Black presences throughout communities in the city and province.
“So, if we rename the church Richard Preston, or the road or the street or what have you, or Dr. Burnley “Rocky” Jones Street … we need to have markers there that say who these individuals were and also pays homage and commemoration that there was a Black community that existed here,” Saney said.
“On top of that, I have the fear that not only will the Black community disappear, but over generations, even the memory that there was a historic Black community will also disappear and slide into oblivion.”