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Family Ties, Inertia, Discrimination : Novia Scotia Enclave Founded by Ex-U.S. Slaves Survives Intact

January 03, 1988|JEFF BRADLEY | Associated Press

PRESTON, Nova Scotia — Held fast by family ties, inertia and a legacy of discrimination, an enclave of blacks directly descended from American slaves has survived intact in a corner of maritime Canada where their ancestors took refuge 200 years ago.

"Some young people move out, but a lot decide to move back the first chance they get," said Edgar Johnson, a handyman in North Preston, where split-level homes and run-down shanties indicate progress, and the lack of it, for a tiny minority that somehow hangs together.

Half an hour's drive from the provincial capital of Halifax, North and East Preston are the heart of the original freed-slave settlement of the 1780s. They remain virtually segregated in a province that has 30,000 blacks in 48 scattered communities.

North Preston's two elementary schools, the Nelson Whynder and Allen W. Evans, are entirely black. And the local orphanage is named the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, as if the civil rights and black power movements never happened.

Little Change

Winding country roads, wooded hills and fishing ponds have changed little since freed slaves were first apportioned 10-acre plots of swampy land in Preston.

"It's unique in Canada," said Dr. Bridglal Pichai, director of the Black Cultural Center for Nova Scotia. "The land was allotted to them in the 1780s, and they have been there ever since."

In 1841, Sampson Carter, William Dair Seur and 105 other blacks in Preston petitioned the government for title to their land and the chance to move to better lots where "by patient industry and frugality" they could improve their prospects.

But the request was denied, and Pichai said that the majority of Preston residents still lack legal title to raise mortgages or sell their land, an oversight that typifies the quiet neglect of Nova Scotian blacks. "We're working on this now with our lawyers," he said.

Comfortable Life

While Preston residents complain of discrimination, especially in the job market in an economically depressed province, life is comfortable for many.

East Preston is a verdant community of modest single-family homes nestled among the trees, with cars in the driveway, flowers in the garden and rocking chairs on the porches. Many residents commute into Halifax for work.

North Preston is a poorer, more congested settlement dependent on welfare checks and plagued by unemployment and alcoholism. A row of new government-subsidized homes is a figurative stone's throw from wooden shacks reminiscent of the Old South. Residents are reluctant to talk with reporters, because of past news articles depicting their community of 1,200 as a slum.

They say that blacks have remained isolated here for generations for good reason: the availability of land, a society built on the extended family and local church, and the comfort of staying with your own in an alien culture and climate.

Close Community

"Everybody knows everybody," said Johnson, 43, who works for the Preston Area Housing Fund. "It's like brothers and sisters in this community. If your car breaks down, everyone who passes will help you."

The government does not record separate statistics on blacks, but Johnson put the jobless rate in North Preston at 80% in winter and 15% in summer, when there is construction work.

Gerald Taylor, director of the Halifax Black United Front, said that 18 of every 20 Preston students drop out of high school. Many girls leave because of pregnancy.

"If they have two kids, the government will actually build them a house," said Doris Evans, a retired teacher and member of the Black Educators' Assn. She tells blacks they have to out-perform whites, rather than expect special treatment, in order to achieve equality.

Discrimination at School

Evans was born into one of 15 black families in the town of Kentville, and when she reached high school, a white store owner objected to his daughter attending the same school.

"They built a one-room school just for blacks, but I didn't go," she said. "I went back to the old school, and they sat me in the back row in the corner for the whole year." She overcame the humiliation and became one of the few area blacks to enter college.

While groups of jobless teen-agers gather around portable stereos listening to rap music--their speech full of street talk picked up from films and TV--this community, founded on loyalty to king and flag, remains inherently conservative.

"We're more British, quieter," said the Rev. William Pearly Oliver, 75, a Baptist pastor whose ancestors came to the province around 1815.

Small Numbers

"We are such a small number," he said. "I was born in a town where I was the only black child for 25 years. In the United States, there are vast numbers of blacks with their own colleges and a growing middle class."

Oliver, in an interview at his spacious suburban home in the well-off black settlement of Lucasville, described himself as a loyal Canadian but he said Canada's original motive for accepting fugitive slaves was less than noble.

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