The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children opened in 1921. It was big, a house, really, three floors and lots of bedroom windows, on Main Street, in what is now Dartmouth. Back then it was Preston. The children it took in were orphans, mostly, and not allowed in any of the local orphanages or schools set up for other children in need.
Eighty-eight years ago this week, the north end of Halifax was flattened in the Halifax Explosion, and the number of orphans skyrocketed. There was nowhere for black children to go. In Shattered City, Janet Kitz writes that a committee set up after the explosion felt “‘Coloured or feeble-minded orphans constituted a special problem that would have to be dealt with.”
The first building of The Home is closed now, replaced in 1978 when it became expensive to keep up; it was too big. It still stands, empty, almost directly across Main Street from the Black Cultural Centre. It’s set back from the road, but you can drive right up to it, on a lane and then a semi-circular driveway that has given up resisting weeds. A tree stands in the yard, with part of a wooden ladder leaning against the trunk. Up in the branches remnants of rope are still in the limbs, relics of the days when kids swung on trees.
The Nova Scotia Home For Colored Children still owns it. The dream is to use it as a home for senior citizens; where the money for renovations will come from, no one knows.
The Home still exists. It’s now a stone’s throw west on Main Street. Two brown barn-like buildings stand near the street. Everyone calls it The Home. At The Home, that’s how the phone is answered. “The Home.” On The Home’s stationary, it says in big underlined letters across the top, THE NOVA SCOTIA HOME and then in very small letters below FOR COLORED CHILDREN. There’s no sign out front, just the civic number, 1018, on Main Street.
No longer an orphanage, The Home helps youth in trouble, mostly those coming from some kind of abusive situation. There’s a computer lab. It’s modern. Twelve children live there now; that’s the maximum The Home’s licence allows. Now The Home accepts youth of any colour. As has been for some time, the black/white split is 50/50.
When I think of the word “colored” used to describe people, I think about the American South and the signs in movies and photographs documenting the Civil Rights Movement. “Whites Only.” “Colored Only.” “Coloreds Not Served.” That The Home uses the American spelling makes it all the more out of time, out of place. To a Canadian kid, “coloured” is what crayons are (even if the flesh crayon was always beige). “Coloured” is hair dye. “Colored” is segregation and prejudice (American-style, even if we practised it here).
I came to Nova Scotia in 1986. Because I moved from a city to the country many things seemed to move back in time. I lived without indoor plumbing or a microwave; I found no local bus service; I heard about the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.
The American organization NAACP, or National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has been called that since 1909. It’s a name of huge historical weight, and not about to change. All the same, when I look through the Halifax phone book, headed for NSCAD or NSLC, and catch sight of the listing for The NS Home For Colored Children, I’m always caught off guard, and embarrassed. I remember Africville. I’m reminded that some people call Nova Scotia the Alabama of Canada.
This Sunday is The Home’s 74th fundraising telethon (they started out in 1931 as radiothons). Mike Mansfield is executive director of The Home. He says the question of the Home’s name comes up often, at board meetings and in conversation. “It’s politically awkward,” he says, “but it’s a name that holds a lot of history.” He finds that the older folks want the name to stay and the younger folks want it changed. “Every once in a while we give it serious thought. How do we keep our history and describe ourselves more accurately?”
We keep history alive by remembering it, teaching it, making movies about it, writing books about it, painting pictures of it. Maybe to call a child colored was once the polite thing to do, but no longer. The Home does good work. The name sucks.
The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Telethon, December 11, on Eastlink Television and Seaside 94.7 FM. 2-6pm. To donate, call 252-3300.