Church examines its connection to Africa

Published May 1, 2007

Layreader Juanita Shortliffe and Lawrence Bruce of Christ Church, Shelburne, N.S., led the parish in a service marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. The service featured the unveiling of a coat of arms honouring black men who served with the British Army in the American Revolution.

For Elizabeth Cromwell, slavery and the racism that fed it is not an academic issue lost in the mists of history.

A Nova Scotia descendant of slaves and former head of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, Ms. Cromwell, who is 62, recalled that the history of black Canadians was invisible and bigotry was common when she went to school.

“There were a few black students in Shelburne (on the southern end of the Nova Scotia peninsula, about 60 km east of Yarmouth). There were mostly white students. The teachers were white. There were things like Little Black Sambo,” she said, recalling the story of a boy in the jungle that is now considered racist.

“We were learning about the British and American colonies, but there was no discussion of the slave trade. There was no one who was a famous black person (in the lessons). Many black families have quite a history in Nova Scotia but no one has been interested in knowing it,” said Ms. Cromwell in an interview.

This year, as many English-speaking countries and churches are commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire, Ms. Cromwell is one of those seeking to shed new light on the stories of people of colour in Canada.

Her Anglican church, Christ Church, Shelburne, founded in 1789, has commissioned a new stained glass window that will reflect the diversity of the congregation. “Our black members felt that nothing in our church reflected the black history of this parish. They said, ‘We have stained glass windows that show the reign of Christ and all the faces are white,'” recalled Archdeacon Sandra Fyfe, rector of Christ Church.

On Sunday, March 25, the anniversary of the passage of the law in the British Parliament that ended the slave trade in the colonies (although slavery itself would not be outlawed by Britain until 1833), Christ Church welcomed visitors from the Mothers’ Union in Britain and guests from other denominations for a special service.

“We used resources from the Mothers’ Union – a service called the ‘humble lifted high,’ which talks of the humble being exalted,” Ms. Fyfe said. A coat of arms was also unveiled that honoured black men who served with the British Army in the American Revolution.

Although Anglicans were certainly among the slaveholders, Ms. Cromwell noted that “the men who spearheaded (the legislation ending the slave trade) were members of the Anglican faith. It was through the Quakers and men like (parliamentarian) William Wilberforce who every year brought it back to the British Parliament,” she said.

Black slaves came to Canada in the earliest days of European settlement with their white masters. Their numbers swelled in the 18th century as Great Britain promised freedom to American slaves who would fight for King and Empire. When Britain lost the American colonies in 1781, many black loyalists migrated to Canada. In the 19th century, blacks fleeing slavery arrived via the Underground Railroad, a network of individuals and safe houses.

Despite Canada’s reputation for tolerance, they did not always receive a warm welcome.

Black settlers lived in a community called Bridgetown, where schools were set up by Anglicans, said Ms. Cromwell. “The first race riot in Canada took place in Shelburne County in 1785,” when a mob of whites threatened a community of blacks and burned homes, she noted. A group of blacks chartered a ship and fled Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone.

Ms. Cromwell, who lived in the United States in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, married an American serviceman and returned to Canada after he died in 1967, can trace her family history back to slave days. An ancestor, George Stevens, came from the U.S. in the 1780s, she said, but tracing details of black family history can be difficult, since spellings of names were often changed, records may not have been kept or may have been lost.

One essential record used by families in tracing genealogy is the Book of Negroes, a list kept by British colonial authorities of slaves given freedom.

Such history was seldom discussed among black Nova Scotians, said Ms. Cromwell. “We learned (about family history) in our family, but people didn’t talk about it (generally),” she said. Musing on the hardships suffered by blacks in slavery, she commented, “Our people survived one of the worst times in history. I don’t know how I would have survived.”

Through the loyalist society, Ms. Cromwell has been instrumental in ensuring the black experience in Nova Scotia is not forgotten. “We must have programs to educate our youth. We must talk about where we came from, about the connection to Africa, our homeland.”

In terms of the church, she remarked that “black families come for fun and weddings. They are Anglicans. We need to find a way to bring them back to the church. There’s reconciliation work to be done between ethnic groups.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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