After a fruitful weeklong residency at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic during African Heritage Month last year, where El Jones, Jacob Sampson, Valerie Mason-John and Afua Cooper interpreted the stories of historical black pioneers, the group realized that their project was destined for more.
First approached by John Hennigar-Shuh, president of the Canadian Maritime Heritage Foundation, the group brought the lives of these Nova Scotian leaders to light. Inspired by museum artifacts, stories were told through monologues or poems. After a great reception, the group—dubbed the Black Halifax Collective—decided to continue the work, going on to write and film the vignettes that make up Black Halifax Stories from Here. Collected on blackhalifax.com in collaboration with the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute, the site will be launched at 6:30pm on Thursday, March 5 at the Maritime Museum. The films are free and serve to focus attention on stories that are all too often neglected.
"So much black history happened by the harbour but you wouldn't know, you'd walk along the boardwalk and there's not one plaque—nothing to mark any of that," says Cooper. "The Maroons, the refugees of the war of 1812, 2,000 people on harbour who made their homes in Beechville, Lucasville and Preston, 15 ships bringing Black Loyalists to Sierra Leone—but nothing to commemorate those stories. So we had that as an objective."
The Black Halifax Collective mined 300 years of Nova Scotian history to come up with the stories, using the talents of African Nova Scotian writers, poets, actors and videographers to highlight these often unseen histories. Featuring the work of George Elliott Clarke, Sylvia Hamilton, El Jones, Afua Cooper, David Woods, Valerie Mason-John, Quanda Johnson and Jacob Sampson, the 14 vignettes summarize the stories of William Hall, the first Nova Scotian to win the Victoria Cross; Thomas Peters, Black Loyalist hero; William and Ellen Craft, freedom runners; Richard Preston, community leader, Viola Desmond, entrepreneur and civil rights activist; George Dixon, acclaimed boxer; Rocky Jones, lawyer and anti-racism advocate and many more.
"The stories evolved, we made it a lot more expansive," says Cooper. "We brought in actors, poets, singers and musicians to tell these important stories.
"William Hall's a crazy story, this man travelled all over India, Turkey, you name it. This black man from Nova Scotian has seen all these places while fighting for the British Empire and there's no biography."
Cooper's own vignette was imagining the 15 ships that took Black Loyalists to Sierra Leone. "I thought, 'What are the stories, what are their names?' It was up to me to do the research, to think of these ships as they left and the people on the ships. For my biography I functioned as an all-seeing poet who knows the feelings of the ships, the innermost feelings of passengers."
With sponsorship from TD Bank, the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute and the Canadian Maritime Heritage Foundation, the Black Halifax Collective wants to keep the storytelling alive. "We hope to write more, we don't want this to be the end."
Black Halifax: Stories from Here
Thursday, March 5, 6:30pm
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic 1675 Lower Water Street