Birchtown, Nova Scotia

Location

Birchtown is located about 7 km northwest of Shelburne, in southwest Nova Scotia. It is nestled in the beautiful Birchtown bay on the shores of Shelburne harbour, the third largest natural harbour in the world.

 

History

Birchtown was settled by people of African ancestry who were loyal to the British during the American Revolution. The Black Loyalists were promised freedom and land in exchange for their loyalty. After the war ended, Britian settled the loyalists in the colonies, mostly Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. 

Founded in 1783, Birchtown was named in honour of Brigadier General Samuel Birch who was responsible for signing the majority of Certificates of Freedom held by Black Loyalists. At the time, Birchtown was the largest free settlement of Africans in North America and became a place of refuge for people of African descent escaping enslavement and difficult living conditions.

In 1784, the first recorded race riot in North America took place in Shelburne when white soldiers returning to the area found it hard to find employment and took up arms, forcing many people of African ancestry to flee to Birchtown for safety.

Due to adverse conditions, many Black Loyalists left Birchtown in 1792 to settle in Sierra Leone, Africa. Surnames of many who remained can be found in historical records, including Bailey, Bayard, Bruce, Crawford, Cromwell, Farmer, Hartley, Herbert and Hill.

 

Population

During its heyday (1783-1794), Birchtown had a population of approximately 1,500 to 2,000 people. While there is no current census data from Statistics Canada specifically for Birchtown, it is estimated that there are about 225 African Nova Scotians living in Birchtown and the surrounding communities, which make up the Municipality of the District of Shelburne.

 

Sites of Memory or Significance

St. Paul’s Anglican Church

Faith has always played an important role in the lives of the people of Birchtown.  The Birchtown Loyalists were primarily Anglican, Methodist or Baptist. Two of the community’s early spiritual leaders were Moses Wilkinson, a blind and lame former slave known for his fiery preaching, and David George, a Baptist who traveled the province preaching in Black communities. The earliest church building in Birchtown was shared by several denominations. The community built St. Paul’s Anglican Church in 1888 and it opened as the Anglican Church in 1906. Records show that a Black fisherman named Enoch Scott provided the land to build the church.

 

Old School House Museum

The one room schoolhouse was built in the 1830s on land that belonged to Roswell Brown, a White schoolmaster who came to Nova Scotia from Albany, New York with the Church of England in the early 1800s.  After stints in Liverpool and Port Mouton, Brown came to Birchtown in 1825. It is believed this may have been the location of the original school that served the Black community and then served the White community as well, likely making it one of the first integrated schools in the province.

 

Black Burial Ground

Legend and oral history identify this piece of land in Birchtown as a burial ground for Blacks. There is no formal record of the burial ground, though historical deeds from two adjoining plots of land show that the properties bordered on “the burial ground”. Families in the area remember being told not to play on the site because it was sacred ground.

There are no official records as to who may be buried on the site. One church record suggests that a John Stevens, who died in the 1800s, was buried “on the northwestern side of Shelburne Harbour”, most likely in Birchtown. Unfortunately, most of the old church records were destroyed in a house fire.

 

African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church   

In a deed dated March 7th, 1870, the church was listed as the British Methodist Episcopal Church, but it was often referred to as “The Coloured Church” or “Coloured Meeting House.” The church was located on the corner of Cornwallis and King Streets and actively served the congregation for 70 years before it was eventually torn down in 1949. Similar to churches of today, the building was used as a meeting place for weddings, baptisms, and major community events. The site where it once stood currently houses King Street Tim-br Mart. 

 

People of Memory or Significance

Enoch Scott

A Black fisherman in Birchtown, he sold land to the parish to build St. Paul’s church in the 1800s.

 

Stephen Blucke

He arrived in Birchtown in 1783 as an officer in the Black Pioneers, an African American regiment that fought with the British during the American Revolution and was granted freedom after the war. Blucke was a prominent community leader and became schoolmaster of the first Black school.

 

Rollie Gibson

A veteran of World War I, member of the Black United Front and founding member of the Black Cultural Centre.

 

Merril Bruce

Born in East Green Harbour, Shelburne County, he worked on schooners and engaged in trade between Nova Scotia and the West Indies. He later gave up his seafaring career to dance professionally and was renowned as a step dancer. Mr. Bruce performed with some of the most famous country and western stars in the Maritimes, including Hank Snow, Wilf Carter and Don Landry.  He was nominated for induction into the Nova Scotia Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

 

Richard Gallion

Born in Shelburne in 1942, he was a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police for 30 years. After returning to his hometown, he worked tirelessly for social justice and economic development for the community. He was a founding member and past president of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society and longtime board member of the Black Cultural Centre.

 

Dr. Sharon Oliver

Dr. Oliver was one of the guiding lights with the Black Loyalist Heritage Society until her death in 2011. She had a distinguished 30-year career as a nurse, university professor, lawyer and health executive. She was widely recognized for her leadership qualities and her unique ability to build consensus. Educated at McGill University and the University of Florida, Dr. Oliver was a noted lecturer, writer and president/CEO of Oliver Management CONNEXUS Inc., a management-consulting firm that focused on diversity governance development.

 

Community Organizations

The Black Loyalist Heritage Society

The Society originated in 1989 when a handful of descendants of the first settlers came together to discuss the history and genealogy of the Black Loyalists in Shelburne. Initially called the Shelburne County Cultural Awareness Society, the group was concerned that the local community was unaware of the contributions made by their ancestors. They began collecting family data and other historical information to raise awareness of Birchtown’s significance. The Society’s members are committed to discovering, interpreting, safeguarding and promoting the history of the Black Loyalists and their descendants in North America.

The Black Loyalist Heritage Society has witnessed many honours among its members. In the year 2000, the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia recognized the athletic achievements of member and former Olympian, Marjorie Turner-Bailey.  Founding member and past-president, Elizabeth Cromwell, has been recognized locally and nationally for her extraordinary efforts in spearheading many of the major achievements of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society. Another member, Ken Brown, introduced the first provincially accredited Black History course at Shelburne Regional High School in 1995.

The Society is currently working towards the construction of an Interpretive Centre in Birchtown.  

Visit the Black Loyalist Heritage Society website.