HALIFAX — Elizabeth Cromwell froze as news of a cross-burning came over the radio at her home in one of Canada’s oldest black settlements.
In an instant, she recalled her bleakest days as a black Nova Scotian.
The report described how an interracial family in a rural corner of the province awoke last week to find on their front lawn a burning cross with a noose hanging from it, and racial slurs being hurled at them.
That someone would target a white woman and black man and their children with a symbol of one of racism’s ugliest emblems horrified Cromwell.
But Cromwell, president of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society and who has experienced both frightening and more common brushes with racial intolerance, said it came as little surprise in a province still struggling under the weight of a deep racial divide.
“It’s there, it’s still there and people still make mistakes,” she said from her home in Birchtown, in southern Nova Scotia.
“Even though we’re making progress, even though things are happening that are good, there’s an element of that history that’s always there and there are people who resent any progress we make.”
The cross-burning in Newport shocked people across the country and led to an outpouring of support for the family. Two brothers, who live in the area and are related to one of the alleged victims, were arrested and charged with hate crimes.
For many in the black community, the incident was just an outward, public display of a sentiment that has persisted under the surface since 1783, when Birchtown became the first North American settlement of free blacks in North America.
“I wasn’t shocked at it in the sense that the racism is deep-seated here,” said Carol Aylward, a black Nova Scotian and Dalhousie University law professor.
“The fact that you’ve got some kind of overt indication that it’s there is probably useful for people who don’t experience the racism on a day-to-day basis. But for those of us who do, this is just a visual of what we experience every day in different forms.”
Aylward said the province’s history is littered with racist incidents that cause outrage at the time, but rarely lead to meaningful action to address the lingering problem.
She remembers growing up in the 1940s in Glace Bay, the daughter of an interracial couple. She said her parents once received a petition from neighbours demanding that they leave but they didn’t. The same happened to other families in other parts of the province.
She cites the firebombing of the Black Cultural Society several years ago, fights between police and black teens in Digby who accused the officers of racism, and recent protests in Halifax by blacks and other minorities who say they regularly face discrimination while working for the municipality.
Cromwell’s heritage society also burned to the ground in 2006 in an arson-related case, incinerating decades worth of archives chronicling black history in the province.
Before and after the fire, Cromwell said racist graffiti defaced the building and threatening calls came in regularly.
Aylward said those are only the visible displays of a widespread prejudice that she believes has left Nova Scotia’s classrooms, courts, businesses, affluent neighbourhoods and professional offices largely white.
Aylward, 60, said she became the first black Nova Scotian of either gender to become a full-time faculty member of Dalhousie law school. The province elected its first black member of the legislature in 1993.
Percy Paris, now a cabinet minister but once the sole black politician in the assembly, said he had been the target of subtle, racist taunts in the legislature since being elected in 2006.
“We didn’t have a civil rights movement in Nova Scotia — I’m still waiting for it,” Aylward said with a laugh, adding that the desegregation of schools in the 1960s didn’t eradicate the bigotry.
“We’ve come a long way ... but the progress we’ve made is purely superficial. We have de facto segregation here. We’ve changed the law, but we haven’t changed the culture.”
The cross-burning came during the province’s black history month and just days before the City of Halifax issued a long-awaited apology to former residents of Africville, a north-end community that stands as a symbol of the strained relations between blacks and whites.
Mayor Peter Kelly promised $3 million to build a replica church and interpretive centre more than 40 years after the last home was bulldozed to make way for urban development.
U.S. author Harvey Amani Whitfield, who wrote “Blacks on the Border” and is working on a book about slavery in the province, said the apology is a good gesture but will do little to address longstanding problems of black exclusion and isolation.
“There are institutional problems in Nova Scotia that don’t seem to be solved,” said Whitfield, who studied at Dalhousie and now teaches at the University of Vermont.
“And I don’t think apologies for Africville, or whatever else, are going to solve the problems we need to improve, which are getting black people into schools, them graduating and getting good jobs.”
Aylward said people need to start talking about racism and admitting there is a problem.
“There is no public dialogue about its existence,” she said. “It’s treated as though it doesn’t exist and, when it does manifest itself this way, it’s labelled as a couple of bad apples.
“(Racism) is pretty much part of Canadian culture. Nova Scotia is unique only in that they are more entrenched in their denial of it.”