Sylvia D. Hamilton


This article explores the history and memory of Canada’s all-Black segregated schools and the attendant struggle of African Canadians to ensure that their children have access to the full educational opportunities promised by Canadian society. Through advocacy, and a legacy of resistance, and by dint of committed work, teachers, community leaders, and parents fought for many generations to turn the ‘promise’ of freedom into reality.

Canadians can no longer engage in the dance of denial about the misery caused by the forced evacuation of Aboriginal and Inuit children when they were ripped from their families only to be placed in separate, segregated residential facilities, which, while called “schools,” bore little resemblance to the caring, nurturing educational environment this word evokes. Rather, they were locations, sites of memory, where abuse and racism reigned. Why did this happen? In a word: race, the socially, not biologically constructed category that has stratified and negatively affected humans for generations, and what theorist W.E.B. Dubois spoke of when he said, “[t]he problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”1 What is not widely known or remembered is that in two Canadian provinces, because of their race, a large number of African Canadian children were also required by law to attend separate, segregated schools.

Legal scholar Constance Backhouse explains that from the middle of the nineteenth century, Black and white students could be separated by law. Legislation in both Nova Scotia and Ontario allowed this division.2 Historian James W.St.G. Walker further points out that:

By circumstance and public attitude, a colour line was drawn in Canada which affected the economic and social life of the blacks. The various attempts to give legal sanction to the line failed universally except in one important area: blacks were denied equal use of public schools in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and this division was recognized by the law. The most important manifestation of colour prejudice in Canadian history is in education.3

These all-Black schools were set up in rural areas of Nova Scotia and southern Ontario and, although not by law, there were a limited number of Black schools in New Brunswick, Alberta, and Saskatchewan where comparatively smaller populations of African-descended people lived.4

‘Colour prejudice’ directed against people of Asian and African descent was codified in government documents and by various actions taken to discourage their entry into Canada. The prevailing racial attitudes in the early part of the century were exemplified by Prime Minister MacKenzie King’s declaration that Canada was a “white man’s country.”5 By 1849 Ontario changed its School Act to permit separate schools to be set up for Black children. In Nova Scotia, legislation to allow officials to create separate schools was on the books by 1865.6

In spite of evidence, experiential and documented, to the contrary, we still face a prevailing assumption that, unlike the United States where race is a defining characteristic of American society, it plays a lesser role in Canada. If we in any measure accept this analysis, it becomes easier to be shocked and surprised when racial conflicts or racist events, such as a white teacher in blackface in a video, a cross burning, or the donning of KKK outfits, make the national news. They are characterized as “isolated incidents,” or intended as a joke.7 The logic works if we convince, or have convinced, ourselves that race is an insignificant indicator and that it has played a limited negative role in the Canadian nation. We can condemn the events without an understanding of the historical roots of racism.8

Racial segregation in education is deeply mired in concepts of white supremacy. The behaviours and actions that arose from these beliefs lead to the de-humanization of First Peoples, the segregation of African and Asian Canadians, and the immoral treatment of the most vulnerable members of any society: children.

While the way in which children of colour were treated cannot be collapsed or directly compared with the horrific experiences of Aboriginal and Inuit children, the core racist beliefs that yielded separation by race were the same, and this did not abate even after the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948, of which Article 26 reads:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages … It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace … Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.9

For many Canadian students this right was denied solely because of their race. Racial prejudice, coupled with severe economic circumstances, meant that many Black people growing up in the first half of the twentieth century ended their formal schooling before finishing grade nine; some left before reaching grades five or six.

For these students, aspirations to higher learning and to various professions were quashed because the doors were usually closed. Educator and African Baptist minister Dr. W.P. Oliver put it bluntly when he said:

Segregated schools are a barrier to good inter-group relations. They are a visible symbol of separation, and a denial of the right ‘to belong.’ Such schools became the stamp of approval of the mental apartheid that exists in many white minds.10

Within Black communities throughout Canada, education has always been constructed as society’s passport to a better life and children viewed as our most precious resource, the jewels in our crowns. Education has been and continues to be held up as a fundamental right as articulated in Article 26 of the UDHR. How then does one explain why some children would have been allowed a level of resources that others were denied? Why was it deemed to be in the ‘best interest’ of Black children and white children that they be separated by race?

The desire for education on the part of African Canadians over time was matched by the equal desire of some Canadians to keep the races apart. For example, in 1843, even though Black parents in Hamilton, Ontario, had paid taxes, they were barred from sending their children to public schools. They petitioned Governor-General Lord Elgin after receiving little help from the local officials and eventually won their rights. Yet in the same region, Amherstburg parents were less successful. Hostility was so strong that local white school trustees threatened drastic action should Black students attend the school. They were quoted as saying that rather than send their children “to School with niggers they will cut their children’s heads off and throw them into the road side ditch.” Although African Canadian parents could hold no hope of consistent application of laws that would uphold their rights, they nonetheless continued over time to do all that they could to press government officials to do so.11

During the research and subsequent production of The Little Black School House documentary film, the links between segregation in education and the contours of segregation within the rest of society were starkly underlined. The historic practice of segregating groups of African Canadian students within the educational system reflected the broader segregation extant in Canadian society. In short, setting students apart in separate schools was no different from the denial of other public services. Retired University of Windsor professor and former member of Parliament, Dr. Howard McCurdy, states that during his childhood years, his family confronted direct racism in Amherstburg, Ontario. He lived in two towns in the same province, yet his experience had a marked difference:

In London at St. George’s school that I attended, my sister and I were the only Black students there. Where, I wasn’t conscious of race in London, when I moved to Amherstburg, I became immediately conscious of it. Employment discrimination in Windsor and Amherstburg was widespread. In Amherstburg, Black people did not work in the town.12

Former museum curator Elise Harding–Davis’ parents faced similar unsettling experiences. They were not permitted to buy a house in Windsor, Ontario, because of the restrictive covenants that prevented Black people and Jews from buying property.

Following World War II, Black soldiers in uniform who had just returned from fighting for democracy abroad were denied entry into some establishments in their hometown of Windsor.13

Overt and covert segregation in Canada continued into the 1960?s. Research has documented the persistence of negative racial attitudes over time and across generations. Parents and educators continually express concerns about high dropout rates and the streaming of students into special programs.14 At the same time as students were being segregated, general curriculum material either ignored African-descended people or presented them in a stereotypical fashion. The segregated system fostered such attitudes within the broader community. Advocates within African Canadian communities were not only concerned with the quality of education offered their students, but also with the representations of Black people in school texts that were available to all students in the public educational system.15

Generations of African people fought against racist content in the school curriculum, and the invisibility of African people in discussions about Canadian nation building.

Historical Background: Go Back and Fetch What You Forgot

In this ahistorical, highly disposable age, it is fundamental that we maintain our efforts to underline the importance of history and its relevance to our lives today; we need to stop, reflect, reconsider who we are, and how we arrived at this place at this in time. The Akan people of West Africa articulate a concept called Sankofa: Se wo were fin a wo Sankofa a yenkyi, which means, “it is not a taboo to return and fetch it when you forget.”16

I am interested with two questions: first, what memories have we failed to represent, and second, what memories do we not want to represent and why? The enslavement of African-descended people in Canada sits at the cusp of these troubling questions.

In a text titled, History and Memory in African–American Culture, editors Geneviève Fabre and Robert O’Meally use French historian Pierre Nora’s lieux de mèmoire, or sites of memory, as the theoretical framework for an examination of the co-joined themes of history and memory. For them this idea pointed to a new set of potential historical sources such as paintings, buildings, dances, journals, novels, poems, orality—which, taken together, linked individual memories to create collective, communal memories of African American culture and life. This concept brings together the private, through oral storytelling and family histories, and the public, as found in archival documents.17 This reading gave me a wider lens for viewing and understanding these elements within an African Canadian context.

Whether we wish to remember or not, the educational segregation of children of African descent in Canada and elsewhere is a direct by-product of the system of chattel slavery, an institution whose goal was to strip African people of their dignity and humanity in order to use them as vehicles of cheap labour for a profit-making system. In several of my film projects I have referenced slavery and, in post-screening discussions with predominantly white audiences, have been questioned about it. In many cases people are just astounded—how come they did not know this? I face silence when I explain that ministers, church leaders, and key political figures owned slaves and that there are wills on record bequeathing women, children, and men as part of household property to heirs and successors for ever and ever and ever; that the women and girls were looked upon for their capability to breed more property as it were. The first enslaved people in what we now know as Canada were people of the First Nations who were enslaved by French colonists who later replaced them with African people.

When I walk along the Halifax waterfront I think of the young children who were bought and sold there—of a young African girl child sold along with hogsheads (barrels) of rum. When I stand beside Halifax’s St. Paul’s Church, I think of the enslaved Africans who were baptized to ‘save their souls’ but their Black bodies were not their own. Their voices silenced, their memories haunt me still.

African people in early Canada acted on their thirst for education, in spite of the predominant societal attitude summed up by the common saying that if you educated a ‘slave’ you made him unfit for service.18 Montréal, QC: Éditions Hurtubise HMH Ltée.]

In my high school during the 1960?s there were so-called slave auctions, where students could be bought for a few days, or a week, to be the slave for another student. The slave would carry the owner’s books and do whatever was requested. Were they held as fund-raising events or part of winter carnival activities, I can’t remember or, rather, my memory refuses to. As one of a handful of Black students in the high school, I, as well as they, kept our distance.

Talking about slavery in Canada has been taboo. The generalized narrative asserts that African-descended people arrived in Canada via the Underground Railroad. The runaway slaves followed the North Star to freedom with Harriet Tubman’s words, “Live Free or Die,” ringing in their ears. A Heritage Minute tells the Underground Railroad story19 that is indeed true. Tens of thousands of African-descended people arrived in Upper Canada from the United States, especially after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. However, the promotion of the Underground Railroad story as the main narrative explaining how Black people came to Canada obscures vital parallel narratives: those that speak about the enslaved African people in the provinces, now known as Nova Scotia and Quebec, and, at the same time, those who speak about the runaways, the freedom seekers entering Canada. Historian Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angelique, the story of the enslaved African woman Angelique and the Montreal fire she was accused of starting, has cracked open a space to begin a discussion of slavery in Canada. It is one that includes examination of the burial grounds of enslaved people in Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec. 20. National Film Board of Canada. This film deals with the Priceville site.] These lieux de memoire or sites of memory, by their very existence, challenge the dominant narrative and the resultant image that Canadians hold of themselves, especially in comparison to their neighbours in the United States. Slavery in Canada, when acknowledged, is often argued away on the basis of this comparison and on the question of numbers. Smaller numbers were supposed to have made the practice more palatable, less harsh. We are supposed to learn all that is important and significant as bodies of knowledge in our educational systems from the primary to post-secondary levels.

Yet, it is only in the last decade that we have seen glimmers of information about African peoples in Canada show up in public schools, and, all too often, relegated to events during Black History Month. Significantly, for many generations, we have learned nothing of Canada’s history of all-Black schools, segregated by law and geography in Ontario and Nova Scotia, two provinces with long-standing, historic populations of African-descended people. I consider the locations and the extant former schoolhouses as sites of memory; there are generations of invisible stories embedded in these geographic sites and in the memories of the students, teachers, parents, and trustees who were the schools’ communities. The segregated schools were a direct legacy of the enslavement of Black peoples and the conscious and unconscious racist societal attitudes that are intertwined with that heinous system. Traces linger in our language: slave driver, working like a slave, and whip into shape are common phrases uttered without much thought to their origins or how they might sound to a listener who may be of African descent.

The geography of Black settlements in Canada, and most particularly Ontario and Nova Scotia, can be traced to the residual political and racial attitude toward African people that began during slavery and colonization. Considered second- or lower-class citizens (the term citizen is used advisedly here as rarely were they accorded the benefits and rights assumed by other Canadians), they were allotted land accordingly. Nonetheless, from the earliest periods of settlement, African people created their own institutions, two primary ones being churches and schools. Denied access to common or public schools, they created their own at the same time as they fought for the right to send their children to public schools. Elise Harding–Davis can trace seven generations of her family history to 1798 when her ancestors crossed the Detroit River to Canada to start new lives. She explains that they came with nothing, “And so we often first built a church building. And we would use that as a school, a social center. Education was the most important facet of Black life.”21 Nova Scotia Judge Corrine Sparks, who attended a segregated school, points to the same primary connection for early Black settlers in Nova Scotia:

Education and religion in an African Nova Scotian context are intricately related. Family life revolved around the church. Generally speaking the more educated people in the community would be the deacons and of course you’d have a minister who was really the leader of the community. So a lot of the educational grounding came from the organizational framework of the Black church.22

The link between church and school was not only philosophical, it was geographical; the schools shared the same land and were constructed beside the churches. In my home community of Beechville, located near Halifax, our two-room school was constructed on nearby property allocated by elders of the African Baptist church.

The desire of Black parents to educate their children was palpable as evidenced by the countless petitions they filed with governments to have their children attend common schools, and when denied access, for funds to build their own schools. In 1820, parents in the Black Refugee community of Preston, Nova Scotia, petitioned the authorities for financial help to pay for a teacher. Twenty-five years later, in 1845, eighteen families in Windsor, Nova Scotia, urged provincial authorities to assist them in establishing a school for their children.23

Site of Memory: The Little Black School House

When racial flare-ups at Nova Scotian schools topped the national news in the late 1980?s, few watching were aware of the story’s deeper background. Among members of the media reporting the incidents, and even among the teaching and administrative staff of the schools involved, few knew the history and experience of some of the parents and grandparents of the Black students involved in the turmoil. Few knew of the long-standing struggle against racist practices in the educational system, nor of their origins. In September 1990, a group of retired teachers who had taught in Nova Scotia’s segregated schools organized a weekend reunion during which they participated in a variety of activities, including a bus tour to the sites of several former schools in Halifax County. The footage I filmed during this memorable event was lost in a massive fire at the National Film Board in Halifax. The stories recalled, the places visited, and the commitment to not forget this history stayed with me.

After the fire I completed a short film titled Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia, about Black youth, race, identity, and empowerment.24. Canada: National Film Board of Canada.] However, its important back story—one inspired by the reunion—still had to be told.

The Little Black School House is a one-hour documentary film25. Grand Pre, NS, Canada: Maroon Films Inc.] that tells the story of segregated schools in Canada, the teachers who taught there and the students they taught. It is also the story of the struggle of African Canadians to achieve dignity and equality through the pursuit of education. Segregation in education is associated with the United States and South Africa. In 1954, while the US Supreme Court was moving to prohibit racial segregation in schools by its landmark ruling in the Brown v. The Topeka School Board case,26 schools segregated by race were in full operation in communities in Nova Scotia and Ontario. Structurally, the film is a multi-voiced narrative. Two categories of people appear: individuals who either taught in, had been students, or were the parents of children who attended segregated schools, and knowledgeable historians and educators who situate these schools within the broader socio-political context. They engaged in this public act of remembering, one where the individual stories taken together shape a collective memory.

This memory holds a complicated truth about segregation and what that meant: forced exclusion on the basis of race, lack of basic physical and educational resources, and limitations on access to further education. However, at the same time, for the most part, Black teachers who were fiercely devoted taught the students well, held them to the highest standards, inculcated a strong work ethic, and did all that they could to equip them to live in a society that might reject them because of their race. They displayed creativity, innovation, and resilience. Many of the teachers, after having attended Teacher’s College, were limited in the teaching options open to them. Rarely would they be hired in schools other than those that were segregated. The oral testimonies of the film participants consistently maintained an emphasis on education, a legacy passed down from generation to generation, as demonstrated by the focus on education within the African United Baptist Association (AUBA) of Nova Scotia, whose Education Committee gave annual reports at Association meetings, such as one held in 1948 when Chair Rev. A.F. Skinner stated that:

All Negro schools are staffed by Negro teachers almost all of whom have had special training for the work. They come to know intimately the needs of their pupils, and take pride in endeavoring them.27

The documentary was filmed in several locations in Nova Scotia and Ontario in the fall of 2006 and was first screened in September 2007.28 Within the film, there are intergenerational scenes involving high school students in conversation with community Elders. In one, a surprised student listened intently as an Elder spoke about her early school days:

From grade one to grade five. That’s as high as the grades went. We just had the two teachers… Just one classroom. There’s lots of times we didn’t get to school on account of the snow storms or somebody would drive us with the horse and sled or something like that. No school buses. On foot.29

So engaged were they with each other, as they sat on a school bus touring sites of former schools in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, they seemed unaware that this rare and fleeting moment, where memory was passed on, was being captured on film. The weekend we filmed in this district, our crew was welcomed by members of the Tracadie United Baptist Church as they celebrated its 184th anniversary, a milestone of survival and history that we recorded for the film.

Legislation, cited earlier, enabling segregated schools was routinely applied in areas with what were deemed significant Black populations, thus rural areas in Ontario and Nova Scotia where there was de facto segregation, were confirmed in their long-standing practices by law. In towns and cities where the population might be more numerous in particular areas, children would attend the nearest school, often located in a less affluent section of the city or town. There they faced streaming, isolation, and, in the case of the Willow Street school in Truro, Nova Scotia, separate bathrooms. Mercer Street School in Windsor, Ontario, attended by former teacher Lois Larkin when she was young, was a case in point. Remembering her experience when interviewed, she explained that she had one teacher at this inner-city school who was supportive but, for the most part, children of colour were not encouraged. Subsequently, “many of our children were streamed into what was called the opportunity class and these children carried those labels and sadly as a result many of them did not go on to secondary school.”30 James Haines remembered his troubling experience at the Gagetown public school in New Brunswick:

Gagetown school was terrible. The teacher was very prejudice. She punished us by putting soap in our mouth, strapping us. I do not want to remember those years and those things. I do not have good memories about those years. For example when Mrs. Alexander from the school board came to school she always said, “How are my little darky children.” Even Santa Claus used the same word, ‘darkies.’31

During my research and production process I was reminded of the compelling stories told in Isabelle Knockwood’s Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. She recounts the harrowing experiences of the children who were forced to eat spoiled potatoes and meat from tin plates while priests were served the best food. At five she was taken to the school along with her sisters where they were issued uniforms with numbers. She could only look forward to the weekly visit from her parents who walked five miles from the reserve each Sunday to see them. Knockwood’s interviews showed that it was the children who did not have regular visits from parents who suffered the most abuse:

Nearly always, when I taped interviews with former students, they would begin to cry as they recalled their experiences at the school. One man showed me physical scars that he still bore. I began to feel that I was carrying their pain, as well as my own, around with me … For me too the ruined school began to take on its own individual personality. Even in its derelict state it seemed menacing. I spent a lot of time up on the hill, walking around the school grounds, looking at the decayed building. It was if I wanted it to talk to me.32

We learn about the intense amount of physical labour required of students in direct contrast to the minimal amount of academic work offered. There was little preparation for careers or work beyond the school. She, like other girls who reached grade five, regardless of age, were required to work in the school’s kitchen. Some worked for a month, others remained there permanently.

Out of the Depths combines Knockwood’s personal story with that of other Survivors of the school; by incorporating them into her memoir, she offers a collective history, much as I was attempting in constructing The Little Black School House.

The prickly challenge of The Little Black School House is in its counter-memory—it presents historical events, experiences, contained in the individual and collective memory of African Canadians, which runs counter to the stories in the popular imagination about Canada and its system of education and about segregated schools. Canada and segregated schools are words that rarely appeared in the same sentence: many assume they never existed in our country. Consider the power of the photographic images of Black children stalked by angry white parents and surrounded by United States’ national guards as they are taken to school. These images, along with those from the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa, defined our Canadian understanding of segregation in education. The United States, being our closest neighbour geographically, and to some extent culturally, represented our yardstick, indeed our definition of segregated schools.

I chose not to use any archival footage from the US or South Africa in this film to ensure that the story would be clearly seen and defined as a Canadian story, a made-in-Canada experience, one hardly admitted and never before told in film. The sense of place, the geography, is of the utmost importance in The Little Black School House precisely because it is a Canadian story, and must be understood as such.

The question then is this: how can a memory be vivid, emotional, almost palpable, as if yesterday, in one sector of Canadian society, yet more broadly, in another, no apparent memory? I say apparent since it is hard to understand such absences in the memory of those who—given their proximity, geography, and time period—should have known.

This story has not been told in the foundational texts where such knowledge is codified, therefore “known” and taught. Throughout the various film production stages, from research to launch, people who were not of African descent asked how it was that they did not know this story and its many dimensions: a parallel (unequal) system of public education and the multi-generational resistance and struggle of parents and community leaders against segregation and exclusion. African Canadians simply said, “finally this story will be told.”

The Little Black School House was released during the period when the Toronto District School Board was considering a proposal from Black parents to create a Black-focused school as one effort to stall the high dropout rate and the disengagement of their children from the city’s public schools. While a discussion of this proposal and its aftermath is beyond the scope of this article, it bears mentioning that many opposed to the school cited segregation and turning the clock back as reasons for opposing it. The proposal called for a curriculum that focused on the history and contributions of people of African descent, and for teachers who understood and were knowledgeable of this ethic/approach; the school would be open to any student who wished to attend, a fact lost during the raging public debate. Few seemed to know the actual history of legalized segregation and, therefore, were not able to make a distinction in what the parents were advocating, nor able to draw the obvious connection to the long-standing existence of publicly funded Catholic or alternative schools in Toronto. While references to race were removed from the school legislation, religion was not. In Nova Scotia, Wade Smith, a school vice-principal and an engaged, thoughtful Black educator, while commenting on the high dropout rate of Black students in Halifax schools, was taken to task by media commentators and educational officials for suggesting that an alternative school rooted in a Black cultural experience might help to stem this tide. In both cases, Toronto and Halifax, the strongest voices decrying the suggestion of Black-focused schools, offered few alternatives, nor did they display an understanding or knowledge of the historical, tenacious roots of racism within the educational systems, as exemplified by forced, legal segregation, exclusion, and lack of parental choice.33

A Legacy of Resistance

The educational experiences of several racialized groups in the early years of the twentieth century—for example, Chinese, Japanese, and African Canadians—were characterized by racial isolation. These communities shared the negative racialized categorization of other, equated with inferiority. This racism, which also led to First Nations’ children being placed in residential schools, was predicated on beliefs, conscious or not, of white superiority. Why else would these children be set apart?

Significantly, active resistance to racism and exclusion was common throughout the communities over several generations. Ontario writer Adrienne Shadd’s research uncovered the case of parents in Chatham, Ontario, who in 1891 took direct action against their local school board rule that required all Black children to attend one school in Chatham, no matter where they lived in the city. After filing a petition in an organized action, parents proceeded to take their children to the school of their choice; the result was the de-segregation of Chatham’s schools. In 1921, the Chinese community in Victoria, British Columbia, resisted efforts by the city’s school board to segregate them into specific schools. Parents organized a student strike to force officials to allow their children to attend schools where they were registered. They kept their students out of school the entire year and set up their own school in defiance in order to maintain the strike and to provide an education for their children.34

Parents in Three Mile Plains, Nova Scotia, pulled their students from school in 1926, in protest over the poor conditions, and thereby closed the school. Their move forced the government and the local gypsum company, a main employer in the district, to produce funds to pay for repairs.35 As late as 1964, parents and community leaders in South Essex County, Ontario, petitioned the local school board to allow their children to attend a new school that was under construction in the town of Harrow. Their school, SS 11 Colchester South, was in extremely poor condition and was the last segregated school in Ontario. They wrote:

On behalf of parents and ratepayers, the residents have been patient for more than three decades. The fear and silence identified with the past has been supplanted with courage and determination to make certain that their children are going to receive the best possible education on an integrated basis equal to the standards established for other children.36

These remembered and uncovered acts of resistance stand as sites of memory, the documentary evidence of the ongoing struggle against racism, and for human dignity.

Historical context was the canvas for this story, but contemporary witnesses—the teachers, the students, the community leaders—gave it life, dimension, and meaning based upon their lived experiences. Their faces, their bodies, and their memories became the landscape of The Little Black School House. What the people who appeared in this film or who were involved in the decades-long fight for justice for former residents of the Black community of Africville, a village destroyed in the 1960?s by the city of Halifax in the name of urban renewal, and for which the Halifax has now formally apologized, remember, they remember for all Canadians.37

In Nova Scotia, the multi-generational advocacy around educational concerns has led to successful, historic changes within the educational system and governmental agencies: designated seats for African Nova Scotians on every school board; a provincial advisory council to the Minister of Education; the African Canadian Services Division in the Nova Scotia Department of Education; a government minister responsible for African Nova Scotian Affairs with a fully staffed office; and credit courses in African Canadian Studies, Grade 11, and English 12: African Heritage are open to all Nova Scotian students at the high-school level. Yet parents and educators, while applauding these valuable, long overdue institutional developments, caution that we are not there yet. Much remains to be done to ensure that, as Dalhousie Law School Professor Michelle Williams says, “whatever they [children] can dream they can do.”38


Sylvia D. Hamilton is a multi-award winning Nova Scotian filmmaker and writer who is known for her documentary films as well as her publications, public presentations, and extensive volunteer work with artistic, social, and cultural organizations at the local and national levels. She was born in the African Nova Scotian community of Beechville, founded by the Black Refugees from the War of 1812. She attended Beechville’s segregated school from primary to grade three. Her mother, Dr. Marie Nita Waldron Hamilton, was a schoolteacher who taught in a number of segregated schools in Halifax County, Nova Scotia. The Little Black School House, inspired by her mother and other teachers who taught in Nova Scotia’s segregated schools, was released in 2007 by her company, Maroon Films Inc. Her other films include, Black Mother Black Daughter (1989), Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia (1992), and Portia White: Think On Me (2000). Her work has been recognized with a Gemini Award, The Portia White Prize for Excellence in the Arts, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation’s Maeda Prize and CBC Television Pioneer Award, among others. She has received three honourary degrees and was appointed a 2008 Mentor with The Trudeau Foundation. She worked with the National Film Board’s Studio D where she co-created New Initiatives in Film, a program for women of colour and First Nations’ women, and was also Chair of the Women in Media Foundation. She held Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University and currently teaches part-time at the University of King’s College in Halifax.

  1. Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903:11). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg & Co. Retrieved 1 November 2010 from:
  2. Backhouse, Constance (1999:250–252). Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950. Toronto, ON: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History by University of Toronto Press.
  3. Walker, J.W. St. G. (1980:107). A History of Blacks in Canada: A Study Guide for Teachers and Students. Hull, QC: Minister of Supply and Services Canada. For a contemporary, comprehensive discussion of the history of African Canadians see: Walker, J.W. St. G. (1999). African Canadians. In Paul Magocsi (ed.). Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
  4. Lenetta Tyler taught for a term at Fredericton, New Brunswick’s Elm Street School in 1929. The school had no bathroom and the children had to collect wood for the stove. The school covered grades one to five. Tyler, Lenetta (2003). Research interview. Development Report for The Little Black School House. In Saskatchewan and Alberta, where the migration of African people from Oklahoma took place at the turn of the century, the new settlers set up their own schools. A small community developed north of Maidstone in the Eldon district of Saskatchewan c. 1908. Although there were enough families for a school, local authorities were reluctant because it would mean that Black and white children would be housed together. Eventually a school was set up in 1915 but the boundaries were such that white children were excluded. After the out migration of the Black settlers in the 1920?s, the school ceased to be segregated. In Alberta, Black families settled near Athabasca in the Amber Valley area, where by 1913 they had built their own school, which continued into the 1950?s. Calgary writer Cheryl Foggo’s memoir Pourin Down Rain, chronicles what it was like growing up Black in Western Canada where her family has lived for four generations. Foggo, Cheryl (1990). Pourin Down Rain,. Calgary, AB: Detselig Enterprises Ltd.–Temeron Books Inc. For further information on the settlement of Oklahoma Blacks in western Canada see also:
  5. “That Canada should desire to restrict immigration from the Orient is regarded as natural, that Canada should remain a white man’s country is believed to be not only desirable for economic and social reasons, but highly necessary on political and national grounds.” Cited in: Mackenzie, W.L. (1908). W.L. Mackenzie King’s report on his mission to England to confer with the British authorities on the subject of immigration to Canada from the Orient, and immigration from India in particular. Sessional Papers 1908, No. 36a:5–10 (retrieved 1 November 2010 from: See also James Walker’s (1980:144) “African-Canadians,” in Magocisi’s Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples for details on the 1911 Order in Council prohibiting “Negroes” from entering Canada, and on the impact of the 1910 immigration act on Black immigration to Canada.
  6. Winks, Robin, W. (1969). Negro School Segregation in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Canadian Historical Review 50(2):164-191. See also: Backhouse (1999:250–252).
  7. In March 2007 a white teacher in a school in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, appeared in blackface in a video made by three teachers and shown at a staff meeting. It mocked a member of the staff who was of African descent. The CBC quoted the principal as saying, “It’s a minor incident gone awry” (retrieved from: Two incidents of people wearing KKK outfits made national news between 2007 and 2010. First, for Halloween in October 2007, three students came to Cornwall Collegiate Vocational School wearing KKK garb and at least one carried a noose (retrieved 29 December 2010 from:; second, the first prize winner in the Campbellford, Ontario, Legion October 2010 Halloween costume party was dressed as a Klansman, carrying a Confederate flag and rope with a noose, at the end of which was a man in blackface. See: KKK costume at legion Halloween party disgusts many in Ontario town. (2010, November 2). The Globe and Mail (retrieved 11 January 2010 from: Furthermore, a cross-burning on the lawn of an inter-racial couple in Hants County, Nova Scotia, in February 2010 generated much national attention and outrage. It is imperative to state that these last two events caused much public outcry and disgust and, in Nova Scotia, a major public rally in support of the couple. Along with the widespread outrage that surrounded the suspension of an Ontario minor hockey coach for taking a stand against racial taunts directed at one of his players, these public responses may be significant indicators that some attitudes are shifting (retrieved 29 December 2010 from: For evidence of shifting attitudes, see: Allen, K. (2011, January 6). After suspension, coach returns to ice a little wiser. The Toronto Star. Retrieved 11 January 2011 from:–after-suspension-coach-returns-tp-ice-a-little-wiser
  8. See Backhouse (1995:15). Backhouse argues that Canadians maintain a sense of “racelessness” that is in direct contrast to the historical record. Her exhaustive examination of “hundreds of statutes and thousands of judicial decisions that use racial constructs as a pivotal point of reference” lead her to conclude that, “ Collectively, these legal documents illustrate that the legal system has been profoundly implicated in Canada’s racist history. Legislative and judicial sources provide substantial evidence to document the central role of the Canadian legal system in the establishment and enforcement of racial inequality.” Historian James W. St. G. Walker also addresses this subject in: Walker, James W. St. G. (1997). “Race”, Rights and the Law in the Supreme Court of Canada. Waterloo, ON: The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History and Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
  9. United Nations (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948). Retrieved 2 November 2010 from:
  10. Cited in Thomson, Colin A. (1986:102). Born With A Call: A Biography of Dr. William Pearly Oliver, c.m. Dartmouth, NS: Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia. A paper written by Dr. William P. Oliver in 1949 offers a compelling snapshot of the status of Black people in Nova Scotia at the time and was presented at a meeting of the Canadian Humanities Council in Halifax. The paper is both direct and candid. He listed the number of people in various jobs and discussed the poor educational opportunities arising from the segregated school such that, at the time of writing, he stated: “During the 135 years of their settlement here, there is a record of only nine negro university graduates, and of these nine only three can really be called direct descendants of the early settlers.” Oliver, W.P. (1949:296). Cultural Progress of the Negro in Nova Scotia. Dalhousie Review 29(3):293–300. Interviewed for The Little Black School House, nurse and business owner Geraldine Browning, who grew up in East Preston, Nova Scotia, states that after Grade 8, it was the end of the road in the segregated school; students had to travel far from their communities to enter Grade 9.
  11. See: Winks (1969:172). Negro school segregation in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Canadian Historical Review. Backhouse cites a number of historical legal cases in Ontario where officials used different tactics to prevent Black children from attending the common schools. See especially: Backhouse (1999:414).
  12. McCurdy, Howard, M.D. (2007). Interview, The Little Black School House.
  13. Harding–Davis, Elise (2007). Interview, The Little Black School House.
  14. Henry, Annette (1993). Missing: Black self-representations in Canadian educational research. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’education 18(3):206–222. See also her detailed reference list which includes: Braithwaite, Karen (1989). The Black student and the school: A Canadian dilemma. In S. Chilungu and S. Niang (eds.). African Continuities/L’heritage African. Toronto, ON: Terebi: 195–216; and, Lewis, Stephen (1992, June) Consultative Report on Race Relations. Toronto, ON: Ministry of Citizenship. For Nova Scotia, see: The Black Learners Advisory Committee (BLAC) (N.S.) (1994). BLAC Report On Education. Halifax,NS: Black Learners Advisory Committee.
  15. In Nova Scotia, individuals such as Delmore “Buddy Daye”, Pearleen and William Oliver, and Carrie Best were challenging formal and informal exclusion of Black people from educational opportunities, employment, housing, and public services. From challenging a barbershop’s refusal to cut a young boy’s hair to the protest over racist material in the school curriculum, these leaders were forthright and outspoken. Pearleen Oliver launched two challenges, one against the colour bar that prevented Black women from entering nursing, the other for the removal of the text, “Little Black Sambo,” from the province’s schools. She was successful in both actions. In 1944 she worked with community leader, Mr. B.A. Husbands, who on behalf of the Coloured Citizens’ Improvement League, wrote to then premier A.S. MacMillan objecting to the book Little Black Sambo used in Nova Scotia’s schools: “Whereas the little children of our public schools get their introduction to the colored race as far as public education is concerned, at an impressionable age, in the grade 2A, reader; And whereas the references in the story of “Black Sambo” appearing where it does, holds the colored race up to ridicule, causing deep pain among our children, and presenting our race in such a manner as to destroy respect: Therefore be it resolved that the Provincial Department of Education be asked to eliminate this objectionable material from the text book. And be it further resolved that the story be substituted by the authentic history of the colored people and stories of their great men and their contributions to Canadian Culture.” Excerpted from: Colored Citizen’s Improvement League (1944). Letter to A.S. MacMillan (1944). Halifax, NS: Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management (NSAARM).
  16. Christel N. Temple discusses the sankofa concept in: Temple, C.N. (2010:127). The emergence of Sankofa practice in the United States: A modern history. Journal of Black Studies 41(1):127–150. doi:10.1177/0021934709332464
  17. Fabre, G. and R. O’Meally (1994:8, 15). Introduction. In G. Fabre and R. O’Meally (eds.). History and Memory in African–American Culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press: 3–17.
  18. See James W.St.G. Walker’s “African Canadians”, especially sections on Migration and Arrival and Settlement. For a detailed examination of slavery in Canada, see: Smith, T. Watson (1899). The Slave in Canada, Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, For the Years 1896–98. (Vol. X). Halifax, NS: Nova Scotia Printing Company (retrieved 12 January 2011 from: For slavery in French Canada, see: Trudel, Marcel (2004). Deux siècle d’esclavage au Québec. Suivi du: Dictionnaire des esclaves et de leurs propriétaires au Canada française sur CD-ROM. Avec la collaboration de Micheline D’Allaire. [Cahiers du Québec.
  19. Settling Canada: Underground railroad (no date). Historica Minutes. Retrieved 2 November 2010 from:
  20. Cooper, Afua (2006). The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. Toronto, ON: Harper Perennial. Burial sites include the Redhead Cemetery in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Priceville, in Grey County, Ontario, and a place marked by a large stone, called “Nigger Rock,” in St.-Armand, Quebec. Filmmakers Jennifer Holness and David Sutherland directed a documentary film, titled: Speakers for the Dead. Holness, J. (Producer) and Sutherland, D. (Director). (2000). Speakers for the Dead [Film
  21. Davis, Elise Harding (2007). Interview, The Little Black School House.
  22. Sparks, Judge Corrine (2007). Interview, The Little Black School House.
  23. Preston Petition, 11 November 1820: RG 1 Vol. 422, doc. 22. Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management (NSARM); Windsor Petition, 13 February 1845: RG5, Series P, Vol. 74, #51. NSARM
  24. After the reunion, my late mother, Dr. Marie Nita Waldron Hamilton, who was president of the group, steered a project to compile short biographies of the various teachers; her colleagues published it after her death. See Evans, Doris and Gertrude Tynes (1995). Telling the Truth: Reflections: Segregated Schools in Nova Scotia. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press Limited; Hamilton, Sylvia D. (Director/Writer) (1992). Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia [Film
  25. Hamilton, Sylvia D. (Director/Producer). (2007) The Little Black School House [Film
  26. See: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
  27. African United Baptist Association (AUBA) (1948:18). Minutes of the AUBA. Author’s personal files. Acadia University Archives, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, has a collection of AUBA minutes dating from 1854 when the organization was founded. Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management also holds some original copies of minutes from AUBA meetings.
  28. The documentary was filmed in the following locations: Halifax, Dartmouth, Cherrybrook, Five Mile Plains, Inglewood, Guysborough, and Antigonish Counties, Nova Scotia; Toronto, Windsor, and Amherstburg, Ontario.
  29. Guysborough Elder (2007). Interview, The Little Black School House.
  30. Larkin, Lois (2007). Interview, The Little Black School House.
  31. Haines, James (2003:19). Research interview. Development report for The Little Black School House.
  32. Knockwood, Isabelle, with Gillian Thomas (1992:27, 56). Out of the Depths: The Experiences of Mi’kmaw Children at the Indian Residential School at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. Lockport, NS: Roseway. For an examination of the impact of European colonization on the Mi’kmaq, see Elder Dr. Daniel N. Paul in: Paul D.N. (2006). We Were Not the Savages: Collision Between European and Native American Civilizations. (3rd ed.). Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing.
  33. Regarding Toronto’s Africentric school, see: Toronto District School Board documents (available at: On Black student achievement in Toronto see: Brown, R. S. and E. Sinay (2008). 2006 Student Census: Linking Demographic Data with Student Achievement—Executive Summary. Toronto, ON: Toronto District School Board (retrieved 12 January 2011 from: For Nova Scotia, see: BLAC (1994). The BLAC site contains the original report and a recent review and status update. On Wade Smith, see: Knox, Carsten (2007, June 7). A matter of principle. The Coast. Retrieved from:
  34. See Stanley, J. Timothy (1990). White supremacy, Chinese schooling, and school segregation in Victoria: The case of the Chinese students’ strike, 1922-1923. Historical Studies in Education/Revue d’histoire de l’education 2(2):287–305.
  35. For a discussion of the Chatham case, see: Shadd, Adrienne (2007). Interview, The Little Black School House. See also: Shadd, Adrienne (2007). “No back alley clique”: The campaign to desegregate chatham’s public schools, 1891-1893. Ontario History XCIX(1):77–95. Finally, see: States, David (2003). Research Interview. Development report for The Little Black School House.
  36. Elise Harding Davis, Dr. Howard McCurdy, and former student, Elrita Mulder, discuss the successful campaign to close SS 11 in The Little Black School House. The school was closed and students went to the new school in 1965, the next academic year. In 1964, references to race were removed from the Ontario provincial legislation through an amendment introduced by Leonard Braithwaite, an African Canadian member of the Ontario Legislature. Nova Scotia changed its legislation in 1954 to remove references to race; however, the segregated schools did not all close at that time since individual school districts were in charge of school consolidation. The last segregated school to close was in 1983 in Guysborough County, one of the locations featured in The Little Black School House.
  37. Within the span of three months in 2010, Canadians witnessed two public apologies made in Nova Scotia. On 24 February 2010 the City of Halifax apologized for the destruction of the community of Africville. (The apology, the terms of the agreement reached with the Africville Genealogy Society, and a backgrounder may be found at: Also in 2010, the Province of Nova Scotia announced an official apology and a free pardon to the late Viola Desmond for her wrongful imprisonment. Ms. Desmond had been thrown in jail in 1946 for sitting in the white section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. A free pardon, rarely used, is granted on the advice of the lieutenant-governor and is given in the case of wrongful convictions. See Government of Nova Scotia (2010, August 16). News Release: New Glasgow Presented with Free Pardon, Record of Conviction. Halifax, NS: Premier’s Office. Retrieved 12 January 2011 from:
  38. See: Nova Scotia Department of Education, African Services Division (ACSD) (available at:; Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs (ANSA) (available at: http:/; Council on African Canadian Education (CACE) (available at:; see also: Williams, Michelle (2007). Interview, The Little Black School House.