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Nova Scotia’s segregated history comes alive in Halifax cemetery

WATCH ABOVE: During the early 1900s, black Nova Scotians were predominately buried in “coloured sections” of Halifax cemeteries.

Nova Scotia’s history of segregation against the black community has been well documented from Africville –a marginalized community on the outskirts of Halifax’s North End – to Viola Desmond, a Nova Scotia entrepreneur who was arrested in 1946 for sitting in the “whites-only” section of a New Glasgow movie theater.

READ MORE: Who is Viola Desmond? The first Canadian woman to grace front of banknote

But one Halifax social historian says many people may not be aware that segregation followed many black Nova Scotians to their graves.

“Camp Hill Cemetery opened in August of 1844, we’re now standing in what’s known as the coloured section,” said Gordon Pollock.

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Pollock has been researching the history of segregation in Nova Scotia for the past three decades.

“We have to be honest with ourselves, Halifax was a segregated society in many ways,” he said. “The kids had to go to segregated schools, then when they closed those, teachers put the black children in separate rows.”

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Pollock said Nova Scotia’s history of segregation is complex and not as “cut and dry” as it was in other places, like the southern United States.

“It was kind of slapdash, we weren’t as diligent in our segregation attitudes here. There were no laws as there were in the southern United States about interracial marriage,” Pollock said. “There were segregated female washrooms in the city market but ironically, male washrooms were not segregated.”

Pollock said about 200 people were buried in what was known as the “coloured section” of Camp Hill.

Those who couldn’t afford a plot were often buried with the poor or, if they were an active member of a congregation, buried in their church’s section.

Pollock adds some distinguished members of the black community were buried outside the coloured section, as a way to cover up blatant segregation.

“I think the city was endeavoring to avoid a horrendous public relations problem and an embarrassment,” Pollock said, when referencing the burial of William A. White.

White was born in Nova Scotia in 1874 and served in World War I with the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s only all-black military unit, which was headquartered out of Pictou, N.S. and disbanded in 1920.

READ MORE: Canada’s first and only all-black battalion honoured with special stamp

White was the unit’s chaplain and upon returning from the war, he served at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church as the pastor until his death in 1936.

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He was buried in a public ceremony just outside of the section designated for members of the black community.

But on that same day another man he served with, William Parker, was buried within the coloured section.

“White was an exception because with hundreds of people in the cortege, in order to avoid embarrassment, he’s buried 15 paces or so outside of the coloured section,” Pollock adds.

Dr. Rhonda Britton is the current pastor at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church and said decades of past segregation still impacts present day society.

“This whole idea of segregation, as it has happened in the past, still impacts us today because it is ingrained in the minds of people,” she said.

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Britton believes important lessons can be drawn from historical wrongs.

READ MORE: New project aims to shed light on Africville’s history

“I hope that some of that reflection leads us to greater illumination about who we are as people and the fact that we want everyone to be treated as human beings who are worthy of respect,” Britton said.