Canada·First Person

Being forced to leave my home in Africville was hard. But 60 years later, I feel a different loss

Paula Grant-Smith was forced to leave her childhood home in Africville when she was only 15. She shares what she grieved then — and how that loss has changed in the decades since.

Today, I grieve what my grandchildren will never get to experience

An illustration of a woman sitting on a park bench while a boy runs through a grassy field. Inside the woman’s thought bubble, she imagines the neighbourhood that once stood there.
Paula Grant-Smith was forced to leave her childhood home in Africville when she was only 15. She shares what she grieved then — and how that loss has changed in the decades since she has become a grandmother. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Black Life: Untold Stories reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada, dispelling commonly accepted myths and celebrating the contributions of both famous and lesser-known individuals. The eight-part series spans more than 400 years with an eye toward contemporary issues, culture, politics, music, art and sports.

This First Person article is written by Paula Grant-Smith, a former resident of Africville. She is featured in "Claiming Space," the eighth episode of Black Life: Untold Stories. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ. 

How do you describe what your home means to you? As a child, safe is one word that came to my mind. Safe to roam the open fields to pick berries, safe to spend the day on the shores swimming and safe to collect periwinkles. 

Then there's contentment — sitting on my front step and watching the glowing sun set as the boats went up and down the harbour. Or excited, whenever I sat on my dad's lap to help steer the car home through the dirt roads of Africville, or when us kids started a ball game, and the adults came out to play.   

Special, because the tooth fairy left me a quarter for my lost tooth and my Uncle Bunny, who owns a neighbourhood store, let me buy all the candy I wanted. Loved, when my grandmother came to get me on Sunday mornings for church and I was all dressed up. It was the same when my Aunt Dude stopped what she was doing to teach me how to knit. I still have her knitting needles to this day. 

A smiling man sitting in a rocking chair. A girl and a boy sit on his lap.
Paula Grant-Smith, is pictured as a child with her brother and dad when they lived in Africville in the north end of Halifax. (Submitted by Paula Grant-Smith)

Grownup, when my mom taught me how to clean and cook. Or she showed me how to work the two-ringer washing machine, so I don't get my arm caught in it. Even 'responsible' is another word I think of. Responsible for my younger brothers and sister when my mom went to work — still to this day, I boss them around.  

Ours was a close‐knit Black community in the north end of Halifax for over 120 years. Africville was my home. It didn't have amenities, such as running water or sewage systems, that many other Haligonians could take for granted. But we still took pride in our home.  

Until one day, when that changed. The city had decided to relocate Africville's residents. I was 15. 

Actually, it wasn't one specific day. The process dragged out for months and over many meetings between the city and the community in the 1960s. As a child, I wasn't allowed to attend but we all knew we might lose the home that made us feel special. Loved. Content. Safe. 

My memories of that day are vague, and I don't remember too much about the packing up or what we left behind. By this time, many of my extended family had already left Africville, so we said our goodbyes to those left behind and drove away. We did not want to see our home torn down. I guess you can add trauma to my list of feelings. 

WATCH | The history of Africville: 

Real Stories: Africville

3 years ago
Duration 8:13
An 8-minute segment looking at the history of Africville and the struggle of former residents to get justice. It was a part of the second episode of a network series called Real Stories that aired in 1990.

What I grieve today 

It's been more than 60 years since that fateful day. Today, I grieve the loss of my community. My family bought a home in a mostly white neighbourhood in the north end of the city not far from where Africville used to stand. Some of those neighbours tried to start a petition to keep us out. I grieve the freedom I had to run next door in my pajamas, head in rollers and slippers on, to eat breakfast with my cousin. I grieve the loss of the memories of sunsets and sunrises but also the ones I didn't get to see setting and rising over the water. I grieve the fact that I had to watch each house that I visited and ate in torn down as soon as it was vacant. 

I grieve when I see the faces of my family from my displaced community reminiscing about what was and what is no more. I grieve when I see the tears of the elders. I grieve whenever I return to the land where our home once stood. It's now a park and my eyes fill up with tears when I watch my little grandson run and enjoy the freedom to play — just as I had when I was growing up. 

A collage of two photos. On the left, a boy wearing bright yellow shoes jumps in a puddle in a grassy field. On the right, a woman sits on a bench next to a church-like building.
On the left, her grandson plays in a puddle during the 40th annual Africville reunion. On the right, Grant-Smith revisits Africville and sits at a bench next to the Africville Museum, which is a replica of the Baptist church that stood there before it was torn down in the ‘60s. (Submitted by Paula Grant-Smith)

I grieve because someone said they knew best, and we had to move. I grieve because someone thought we weren't good enough for this beautiful property overlooking the Bedford Basin just because we are Black — say what they will, that's the bottom line. 

I grieve because I am older now, and the joy and happiness I grew up with in Africville will not be passed on to my children and grandchildren. Yes, I missed a lot of things my childhood in the immediate aftermath of losing my home, but in my golden years, I grieve more. It took me until this age to distinguish the difference between a physical home and what that home meant.

Learn more about Africville in the "Claiming Space" episode of Black Life: Untold Stories, now streaming on CBC Gem

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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Paula Grant-Smith

Freelance contributor

Paula Grant-Smith is a retired federal employee who spends her time camping with her husband and enjoying her family. She occasionally volunteers at the Africville Museum located where her former home once stood.