In The Hanging of Angelique (2006), her landmark book about the 1734 public execution of an enslaved Black woman in Montreal, Dalhousie University professor Afua Cooper rightly noted: “Canadian history, insofar as its Black history is concerned, is a drama punctuated with disappearing acts.”
Cooper is among a growing group of scholars whose work has debunked Canada’s reputation as an oasis of racial bliss. As for the newfound displays of white wokeness (cue: Stephen “Black Lives Matter” McNeil), I’m riding with R&B singer Jully Black whose “Take it to the altar” response to a white panelist during a 2018 Canada Reads debate, reflects the feelings of many minorities about the current “reckoning” on race.
On that note, Nova Scotians poised today to mark the one-month anniversary of the videotaped murder of George Floyd might also get “woke” to the homegrown racism exacted upon the Reverend David George (1742-1810). Born enslaved in Virginia, George was among the 2,000-plus Black Loyalists who, in the early 1780s, arrived in the province and who then comprised the largest group of free Blacks in North America.
An impassioned Baptist minister, George established a church in Shelburne to meet the faith needs of the Black Loyalists who’d been re-settled in the coastal village and in nearby Birchtown. Drawn by his spirited preaching and dramatic mass baptisms in local waterways, many whites also joined George’s flock. But resentful of and threatened by the presence of free Blacks in Nova Scotia, a disgruntled band of other whites turned violent.
In a foreshadowing of the terrorizing of Black ministers during civil rights struggles in the American south, an angry mob of Shelburne whites attacked Rev. George and destroyed his home, in July 1784. Emboldened, the white marauders set off a rampage of race hatred that swept through the community for more than a week. “Some thousands of people assembled with clubs and drove the Negroes out of town,” noted an account by an unnamed observer.
Fed up with the abuse they’d suffered in Nova Scotia and guided by Rev. George, more than half of the Black Loyalists determined to leave the province and, in 1792, set sail for British controlled Sierra Leone. In doing so, the group left themselves vulnerable to a still-thriving slave trade that was not abolished in the British Empire until 1834 — a risk they found preferable to the cruelty of life in Shelburne County.
In honour of George Floyd, the Reverend David George, and in light of the forthcoming court trial of Santina Rao (for an alleged “assault” of a Halifax police officer), let history record that the first documented race riot in North America was started by whites in Nova Scotia.
Moreover, the Shelburne Riots of 1784 erupted less than 200 kilometres from the spot on Spring Garden Road where Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, earlier this month, took a knee in purported support of Black Lives Matters protests. The image circulated widely on social media. The history of the Shelburne Riots, not so much.
As for the circle game of apologies, allyship, diversity reading lists, etc., I’m also riding with Dame Shirley Bassey on professed commitments, from woke whites, to combat systemic racism. Roll tape:
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.
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Thanks for this necessary and well articulated reminder. Halifax, and the Halifax Examiner, are richer for your having chosen to live here and contribute to our community.