Nova Scotia history is alive at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of our quarterly magazine, The Union Stand:

If you haven’t been to the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, it is time you visited! It is a wonderful way to spend the day learning about what was for a time, the largest free Black settlement in the world. 

The Centre was built to commemorate and honour women, men and families who settled in Loyalist communities in the late 1780’s and who now live in many communities across the province, including Shelburne, Halifax Regional Municipality, New Glasgow, Sydney, and Parrsboro. There is a monument on the shore of Shelburne Harbour that honours the 1783 Black Loyalist landings. 

The Heritage Centre itself was built in 2015 after an earlier museum at the same location burned down. This new Centre is a lovely modern structure that takes you on a journey in time to follow the path of people who were wrenched from their homes in Africa, enslaved, brought to the American colonies, then brought to Nova Scotia and finally back to Africa again. NSGEU members, historical interpreters, will give you a tour at the Centre if you book ahead. You can call and visit between 10am and 4 pm, Monday to Friday. Currently, the Centre is not open on the weekend, but that could change – check before you visit. 

The story of the lived experience of Black Loyalists is not for the faint of heart. Originally, they were violently removed from their communities in Africa and enslaved – forced to work as house servants, or in manual labour in a variety of ways and places throughout America. All of their work made profits for the owners and was foundational for the growing American economy. 

When the American Revolutionary War (aka American War of Independence) began, the British Crown promised any slaves who fought with them freedom. When the British lost, freedom was negotiated with Americans (representatives from the 13 colonies) for between three and four thousand Black Loyalists. Their names were recorded in a British Naval registry which became the basis for Lawrence Hill’s book: The Book of Negroes. 

As part of the agreement, the newly freed Black Loyalists had to leave America and were told by the Crown they would be granted land in Nova Scotia. They landed in 1783 in Birchtown, near Shelburne. For a time, it was the largest free Black colony in the world. 

In reality, many Loyalists did not receive land grants as promised. Those who did receive them had to adhere to strict conditions in order to keep them. Many Loyalists could not meet these conditions as they could not work the land because they were too poor and were indentured and working in Shelburne. They were constantly taken advantage of, lied to, and discriminated against. One of the first recorded race riots was in Shelburne as Black Loyalists were violently forced out of town to live in poverty and isolation. 

As a result of the hardship experienced in Nova Scotia, a leader in the Black Loyalist community organized a way back to Africa for any Black Loyalists who could make it to Halifax at a particular day and time. Over 1,100 people made it to the boats that day – some walking all the way from Birchtown. The freed Black Loyalists settled in Freeport in Sierra Leone. 

You can find out more about these stories and more by visiting the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre. 

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