Africa’s Children: A History of Blacks in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

Author Sharon Robart-Johnson

$28.99 (pb) 978-1-55002-862-1, 240 pp. Natural Heritage Books (Dundurn Press), November 2009

Undoubtedly, the book’s title can have a limiting effect on the reading audience. This should not be the case. Although the contents concentrate on one county in one province, the historical evidence and implications cross all borders that divide us as members of the human family. This is the disturbing record of man’s inhumanity-to-man in a rural area that still remains neglected and little known. Author Robart-Johnson is to be commended for removing from the shadows a facet of Nova Scotia’s history that must be incorporated in the nation’s quest for equality for all people.

The ten page Introduction is essential to the twelve following chapters. Given the deplorable inadequacies of social studies curriculum our understanding of provincial and Canadian history can be severely distorted. Knowledge of slavery, segregation, overt and subtle discrimination too commonly are excluded to our collective detriment. The overview of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century international roots of slavery, revolution and re-location of “Black Loyalists” to Nova Scotia’s Shelburne and Yarmouth counties provides a context (but not a comfort) for what is to follow.

Chapter I is simply entitled: JUDE. I read it with the same emotional reaction as created for me by Mississippi Burning. The difference is, of course, too obvious. Abductions, torture, killings always happen somewhere else, the American south, being the most convenient repository for any anguish or guilt than can be shouldered and dismissed as the white man’s burden. Jude was a slave girl in rural Nova Scotia. She died three days after Christmas in 1800.

Local historians are like diamond prospectors. They drill in the community bedrock and bring up core samples that lead to further exploration. Robart-Johnson does this superbly in her “drilling” for interesting, informative and most importantly illustrative items in the Yarmouth newspaper archives. Nuggets have been hi-lighted as in the obituary of Mrs. Catherine Jones who died on Valentine’s Day, 1878 at the age of 110. There is the “damned with faint praise” in a 1895 Yarmouth Light account of a slave woman “who came and went by the back door and even though her “skin was a dusky hue” did not prevent having a good opinion of her! And there was the local character, “Blind Dick,” the pantry thief.

To paraphrase the author’s conclusion to Chapter ten, if we knew our history would we have learned from our mistakes, or would it not have made a difference? Africa’s Children is a leap forward in helping us to learn from our mistakes. One significant book does make a difference. —Paul Robinson