Cape Breton Post
Beaton Institute helps preserves Black history
Anyone researching their family roots in Cape Breton should be familiar with the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University.
The Beaton is one of the largest university archives in eastern Canada and it is an important resource in tracing family genealogy and for conducting research on the many ethnic groups in Cape Breton. In addition to its extensive Scottish holdings, the Beaton has sizable cultural materials on the Mi’kmaq, Acadian, Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian as well as Black Nova Scotians.
Cape Breton has had a rich multi-cultural history and some readers might be surprised to discover that Nova Scotians of African descent have played an important part of that history dating back to the early French settlements.
The Beaton, for example, houses the archival records of the Fortress of Louisbourg Historic Site. These document the existence of more than 200 slaves of African descent who were permanent residents at the fortress during the 18th century.
Slavery in Nova Scotia continued under British rule and there are several documented cases of enslaved Black people living in Cape Breton following the fall of Louisbourg in 1758.
During the modern industrial era, Black people were among the many immigrants who made their way to Cape Breton to work in the coal mines and at the Sydney steel plant. The vast majority of these immigrants were from the West Indies and came to Canada in search of employment and a better way of life.
The Beaton’s Black Nova Scotian archival holdings document the life and culture of these Black immigrants. They also provide glimpses into the personal lives of members of the Black community, including Dr. Alvinus Calder, a widely respected medical doctor and civil rights activist who immigrated to Cape Breton from the Caribbean Island of Granada.
Cape Breton, like most other regions in Canada, experienced a widespread pattern of racial discrimination during the 20th century.
The Elizabeth Beaton Collection at the Beaton Institute shows, for example, that in 1901 demand for skilled labor at DISCO steel plant brought three train cars full of African-American workers and their families from Alabama to Sydney to be employed in the blast furnace.
Although they were given assurances of receiving high wages and good housing, these promises were never met. Instead of being given suitable housing, the Black workers were given small shacks in which to live in an area called Cokeville, located near the coke ovens. Their living conditions were appalling; the shacks didn’t have the basic necessities such as running water or sufficient heat and ventilation.
Despite their experiences of racism and broken promises, the Black workers created their own coherent and racially segregated community with its own African Methodist Episcopal Church as well as a one-room school located on Tupper Street for 32 Black students and a teacher brought in from Halifax.
Their stay in Cape Breton was short-lived and after only four years, they returned to the United States in 1904. A few did stay behind and one of the African-American steelworkers married the teacher Selena Williams who taught Black pupils at Cokeville School.
Most local churches did not welcome Black community members, so in 1921, members of the African Nova Scotian community established their own church — a local charter of the African Orthodox Church, which was the only one of its kind in Canada.
In 1928, St. Philips African Orthodox Church was built in Whitney Pier and opened its doors to everyone in the community, regardless of race or religious background.
Black communities in Cape Breton during this period also established community-based chapters of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Glace Bay, Sydney, Whitney Pier and New Waterford.
The Black nationalist Marcus Garvey founded the UNIA in Harlem in 1919. It became popular in the United States, Great Britain, the West Indies and Canada, where there were 34 chapters throughout the country with approximately 5,000 members.
In 1937, Marcus Garvey made an historic visit to Cape Breton and gave one of his most notable speeches before a packed audience at the Menelik Hall in Whitney Pier. His speech was later published in the UNIA newspaper, The Black Man, and his message of non-violent racial uplift resonated among Black communities in countries around the world.
A half-century later, the British Rastafarian musician Bob Marley immortalized Garvey’s words in his famous “Redemption Song.” Those familiar with his song will recall the words: “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.”
Anyone wanting more information on the history of the UNIA in Cape Breton can find information at the Beaton or visit the Glace Bay UNIA Cultural Museum — the only UNIA Hall still in existence in Canada.
More recently, the Beaton Institute has become home to the Wanda Robson and Viola Desmond Collection, which was a gift from Wanda and Joe Robson of North Sydney.
This fascinating and historically important collection documents the life of Wanda Robson and her oldest sister Viola Desmond, Canada’s civil rights icon and pioneer African Nova Scotian businesswoman.
The collection contains photographs, books, letters, clippings and notebooks, together with a variety of official documents including the government of Nova Scotia’s free pardon that was granted posthumously to Viola Desmond in 2010, along with an apology to her family and the Black community in Nova Scotia.
The collection also documents the collaborative work of Wanda Robson and CBU’s Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice in raising public awareness about the struggle for racial equality in Nova Scotia and in Canada. The chair was created in 2010 by former CBU president John Harker and together with the Beaton Institute, it has helped advance Cape Breton University as an important centre for African Canadian Studies.
Due to COVID-19 health protocols, CBU’s Beaton Institute remains closed to the public, however online service and access is available. For requests email beaton@ cbu.ca.
Graham Reynolds is professor of history emeritus and the Viola Desmond Chair in Social Justice at Cape Breton University.
He is the author (with Wanda Robson) of two books: Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land and Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times.