On a personal basis, it’s just another month of the year.
But Brian O. Johnston wants his fellow citizens to learn about the often-forgotten contributions made by black people, not just in Nova Scotia but across North America.
“It’s always with us,” said Johnston, pastor at Zion United Baptist Church. “We have got to find a way that makes everyone feel equal, that they have a chance to be the greatest they can be in a system that doesn’t discriminate and is fair for everybody.”
February marks African Heritage Month in Nova Scotia.
Johnston became the best person he could be partly by learning about the achievements of black people in the Americas. One of his historical role models was African-American scientist George Washington Carver, known for his research on soil depletion and the creation of many products using peanuts.
However, as a school kid growing up in Dartmouth, Johnston’s teachers typically said that black people were brought as slaves or bonded servants to Nova Scotia, without discussing the more positive aspects of his people’s history.
“I did not learn it was a black man who did the first blood transfusion,” said Johnston, “…nothing about the contribution of blacks to the invention of the first traffic light.”
The lot of African Nova Scotians has improved, with an end to formal segregation in public places and more attention to education and awareness about black history in Canada.
However, African Nova Scotians in both Truro and elsewhere are still a marginalized community, especially when it comes to jobs and housing.
“I don’t think we’ve made tremendous strides to be honest with you; still if you look around Truro, there are very few blacks employed,” said Johnston. “It is sad because a number of African Nova Scotians will not reach their full potential and so the province will not fully be as great as it can be, as a large segment of the population is underachieving.”
However, Johnston is trying to turn the tide in his own small way at his Sunday church services through February and March.
Congregation members can stand up and briefly describe a significant person in black history.
Zion United Baptist Church was first founded in 1896 and remains a mostly African Nova Scotian congregation today, although anyone is welcome to join. It has occupied the same site on Prince Street for 122 years.
Johnston said black worshippers founded the church after experiencing racial prejudice from white fellow Christians, but the split with the original church was amicable.
“They gave us their blessing,” he said.
A mounted plaque listing the founding members of Zion United Baptist Church can still be seen today.