by Stephen Kimber
Originally appeared in Atlantic Insight magazine, December 1981
reston, Nova Scotia is Canada’s oldest surviving Black community, but waves of white suburbia now threaten to drown it and to sweep aside the custodians of more than two centuries of unique history. Preston no longer stretches for miles across what the first Haligonians called “the barrens.” Instead, it is being inexorably squeezed by the outward expansion of nearby Dartmouth on one side and, on the other, by the burgeoning of such bedroom communities as Lake Echo and Porters Lake.
“Back in the 1800s,” Joyce Ross explains, “you would have found the sign that says you’re entering Preston where the Dartmouth rotary is now.” Ross is director of the East Preston Day Care Centre. She was born and raised here. She’ll tell you it’s the finest place God has created for raising children, but she deeply resents what the years and the white man’s insatiable hunger for land have done to it. “Since the 1800s,” she continues, “all that land was stolen, you might as well say, from our people. The boundaries of East Preston keep getting moved back. Today, the place only exists from the first Black house on the road to the last Black house.”
Dartmouth spills out beyond the Dartmouth rotary, and down the recently modernized and widened Highway 107, past the shopping centres and the outlets that promise fast everything, from food to “fotos,” past the discounted lumber stores and the no-frills supermarkets, past the bungalows, and the subdivisions with names like Forest Hills, and the trailer courts with no names, pushing aside what used to be sweet countryside on its mission to modernization.
Then there’s a short, sudden stretch of undeveloped and seemingly misplaced terrain on either side of the highway. It’s just before, and just after the turnoff signs for Cherry Brook, North Preston, and East Preston (the three Black communities that are usually lumped together as “Preston”). Beyond that patch of raw country, even more and even newer bedroom communities creep across the land.
“Since the 1800s, all that land was stolen, you might as well say, from our people. The boundaries of East Preston keep getting moved back. Today, the place only exists from the first Black house on the road to the last Black house.”
“I liken the situation to a cancer cell,” Wayne Adams says. “We haven’t got a cure for it, but we can at least keep treating it, keep it from spreading.” Adams, Preston’s representative on Halifax County Council, is talking about a new community development plan that might yet prove to be a legislative “treatment” for the cancer. After a five-year struggle, the Nova Scotia legislature passed the plan this spring.
his community, no question, is poorer than most. But the houses all seem to have plenty of rocky property, and some have cows and chickens in the backyards. Preston is not exactly a town. It’s a collection of roads that spoke off from what passes for a main street. It has no real business district, no industry, post office, government building, or even a schoolhouse. It does have a church and a Centennial recreation centre, however, and if you’d dropped in at the rec centre on recent Saturday night, you might have been struck by how very much Preston resembles a small town after all.
The ladies of the local Lionettes are celebrating the first anniversary of the presentation of their club’s international charter, and everyone who’s anyone in the community is there. The teenagers from the church choir serve the haddock, potato, carrots, and string beans that the ladies of the church cooked up. The minister bestows the Grace of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost on both the food and the 70-odd Lionettes, their husbands, friends, and neighbours. Later, the Lionette of the Year is tearfully grateful, the teenaged winner of the first annual Speak-Out contest nervously thanks his mother’s friends for choosing him for such an honour, and the Lionettes’ retiring Queen Lioness predicts good things for “the truly wonderful group of ladies it has been my pleasure to work with this past year.” Then everyone pitches in to fold the tables and stack the chairs so the dancing can finally begin.
Can this really be Preston?
Isn’t it true, after all, that truck drivers trying to do nothing more than drive their rigs through Preston are pelted with rocks and bottles by local hooligans? And isn’t it true as well that Dartmouth taxi drivers refuse to take fares to Preston because they know they’ll never get paid? Isn’t it also a fact—perhaps the most frightening fact of all—that the RCMP won’t go near the place, no even to answer a call for help?
When Wayne Adams, then a Black radio journalist, moved to Preston in 1973, a white radio-station colleague stayed with him briefly. The colleague’s city friends were afraid to visit him. Even today, Adams says some of his white friends ask if it’s safe to visit.
Preston, even today, has a reputation as a place where “revenuers” and police and white boys from the city are not welcome.
“Nervous now?” Matthew Thomas asks with a laugh. He’s chairman of the East Preston Ratepayers Association, King Lion of the East Preston Lions Club, husband of the East Preston Lionettes’ retiring Queen Lioness, pillar of the East Preston United Church. He knows what people say about Preston, and most of it, he says, just isn’t true. Thomas says there was only one rock-throwing incident, for example, and that Reverend Donald Skeir, pastor of the local church, quickly called a meeting to deal with it. Taxis? Well, most Preston people own their own cars. They don’t even use taxis. What about RCMP? Thomas says the people of Preston themselves have often complained about the inadequate police protection in their communities.
Thomas is surprisingly tolerant of the fact that most outsiders carry distorted images of the place he calls home. There’s plenty of evidence that they do. When Wayne Adams, then a Black radio journalist, moved to Preston from the predominantly white Halifax suburb of Fairview in 1973, a white radio-station colleague stayed with him briefly. The colleague’s city friends were afraid to visit him. Even today, Adams, now a provincial civil servant, says some of his white friends ask if it’s safe to visit. That image is one reason the local men’s group decided to join the Lions organization five years ago. “We wanted to break down the stigma that people ouside have always had about us,” Thomas explains. “We became involved with the Lions and now we have visitors from all over the province who come to our meetings and functions. They see us and our community as it really is.” He adds with a bemused smile, “A lot of them are surprised when they discover we’re just ordinary folks here.”
Like almost everyone in Preston, however, Thomas is ambivalent about the community’s relationship to the world around it. He’s not so much worried that the world won’t like what it sees, but that it will. That brings us back to Preston’s fight for survival.
The battle began in 1977, when Halifax County officials turned down East Preson resident Marvin Riley’s application to build a garage in his backyard. The building inspector explained that Dartmouth had asked the county to enforce an old and previously ignored bylaw that prohibited new construction in the area because it might damage the city’s nearby water supply system. Many were convinced Dartmouth really just wanted to squeeze out Preston’s residents so the city could use the land for its own development. When the county turned down seven more building-permit applications for Preston, angry residents formed a committee to fight for their traditional property rights. Although they won the initial battle—the bylaw was soon repealed—many realized for the first time just how fragile Preston’s future was.
Almost no one in Preston, for example, had clear title to their land. It had simply been passed informally from generation to generation.
Fighting for Title
Land titles have been a longstanding issue in Preston and other predominantly Black Nova Scotia communities. When Black settlers more than two centuries ago were given land by the Crown, they weren’t given legal title to it, which means that still today, they can’t sell it or legally pass it down to their families, though they pay property taxes on the land. The issue was explored in depth by journalism students at Nova Scotia Community College in 2015, with a project called Untitled: The Legacy of Land in North Preston.
In August 2017, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent urged the Nova Scotia government to make faster progress on land titles clarification. The following month, the provincial government announced a commitment of $2.7 million over two years to help residents in the historically Black communities of North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook, Lincolnville, and Sunnyville gain clear legal title to historic land. Information is available here.
Advocacy groups say progress remains too slow, and the process of determining land titles too complex.
Now, however, buyers from Dartmouth, as well as speculators and developers, were picking up large parcels of it. Wherever they turned, Preston residents found what they saw as efforts to destroy their community. Mortgage companies wouldn’t lend them money. Two lenders had turned down Adams’ mortgage application when he moved to Preston; they claimed he would be living too far outside the city limits. “But I could drive past Preston to Lake Echo and see all kinds of new homes going up in there,” Adams says. “Those people could get mortgages.
Residents were also fighting to prevent the county school board from going ahead with its plan to close down their local school and build a new one in a nearby white community instead. Education has long been an issue in Preston. The almost totally Black Patridge River Elementary School in East Preston always seemed to get what Thomas calls “the crumbs.” He says, “The teaching staff wasn’t qualified. The supplies weren’t as good as those in white schools, and the facilities were lacking generally.”
But when the school board decided to replace it with a new school, Adams says, “it was clear they didn’t want to put it in Preston.” Joyce Ross, who served on the save-the-school committee, says the board told them there wasn’t enough land for a school in East Preson: “But that was bullshit, excuse my language. They’d come out and say ‘We have to have five acres of land for a school.’ And then, when we found five acres, they’d say they needed ten, and when we found ten, they’d still say it wasn’t good enough.” The school was finally built on the border between East Preston and Lake Echo. Preston students must now go to school by bus. Although many residents, even some who fought for a Preston location, now support the integrated school—because “the school board won’t ignore the whites when they ask for things”—Joyce Ross still gets angry about it. “What they were saying to me when they did that was that my community wasn’t good enough.”
That point may have been made even more graphically, Wayne Adams says, when trichinosis was discovered recently in some Preston-raised hogs. Federal inspectors, it turned out, had known that the disease was present in the hogs for a decade but hadn’t bothered to tell the Preston people. They also know, Adams says, that people in the community were eating pork from the animals. “They didn’t worry about it much,” he charges, “because after all, it was only Preston.” Eventually he wrung not only an apology out of federal officials, but also provincial funding to hire local rodent-control officers (rats are the main carriers of trichinosis) to prevent future outbreaks. Still he’s far from satisfied: “To get anything done in Preston, you have to yell loudly and long. Governments don’t listen otherwise.”
The development plan that the legislature finally passed last spring may change that. It’s supposed to give Preston’s residents a say in any future development of the area. “Without it,” Adams says, “I don’t think Preston could survive for long.” But he adds that it’s only a first step. “We have to keep treating the cancer because if we let it go for a minute, it will take over and destroy us.”
That may help explain why Adams, when invited to do a television interview about Preston recently, asked that the interview take place in what used to be Africville, a tightly knit Black community on the outskirts of Halifax that was bulldozed out of existence in the mid-1960s. “It took Preston people a minute or two when they saw the interview,” Adams says. “They ask me, ‘Was that really Africville behind you?’ And I’d say yes and they’d look at me and then they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, right.’ People got the point.”
“The point,” adds Brian Johnson, a Black Dartmouth city policeman who was born and still lives in the Cherry Brook part of Preston, “is that we don’t want our littler communities to turn into cities. We don’t want another Colby Village [a nearby suburban subdivision] here. What we want is to keep our identity.”
“We don’t want our littler communities to turn into cities. We don’t want another Colby Village here. What we want is to keep our identity.”
or most of the nearly 200 years since January 20, 1786, when the British Crown granted 730 acres of land in what is now the Prestons to John Wisdom and Edward King—among the first Black Loyalists to arrive in Halifax following the American Revolution—white people paid scant attention to Preston. Even today, Reverend Donald Skeir, the community’s pastor for 29 years and also its unofficial historian, says not much is known about Preston’s history except that Black people have lived here since the 18th century.
Most of the first Black Loyalists, however, as well as 600 Maroons (Black Jamaicans who arrived in 1796 and lived in Preston while helping construct the fortifications at Citadel Hill) soon traded in Preston’s rocky unproductive soil and Nova Scotia’s harsh climate for a better life in Sierra Leone. Preston’s current residents are believed to be mainly descendents of slaves who escaped from the U.S. South during the American Civil War.
“Throughout the first half of the 1800s, the various settlers in the area seem to have had an extremely good lifestyle,” notes one report. “Social gatherings were common occurrences and quite gala affairs. The estates were well kept and prospered.” But by 1956, Maclean’s magazine was calling Preston the “most depressed area in Canada.” In a bold headline, it asked, “Would you change the lives of these people?”
The controversial article by Edna Staebler transformed Preston overnight from a poor but barely visible Black community into a national cause célèbre. Staebler, better known today as the author of several books on Mennonite cooking, spent five days in North Preston and then wrote that the community was “almost as obscure and sinister as a village in an African jungle… The houses were small, inexpertly built, covered with tar paper, asbestos siding, old weathered boards, whitewashed shingles… I entered a couple of the dozens of jungle-like paths that formed a network of short-cuts from one road to another or ran into the barrens. But I turned back because they were littered with excrement… The school is too small… Classes are staggered to let 200 come to school for half of each day…but there still is no room for 125 children between the ages of seven and 13.”
The article appalled almost every one in Preston. “It was so unfair,” Joyce Ross recalls. “The community took her in and talked to her and then she went back and imitated our language and tried to embarrass us in front of the whole world.” Some, however, believe the Maclean’s article ultimately helped Preston. “That story embarrassed the federal and provincial governments into finally taking notice of our problems,” Reverend Skeir says. “The federal minister came down here after that, and then they started putting large sums of money in here. Now, there’s hardly a year goes by when there isn’t some sort of grant or program for upgrading, for employment, for housing.”
“We managed to put the brakes on Dartmouth’s expansion for a while…but we can’t sit back on our laurels now. Dartmouth is going to keep looking at Preston, and if they think we aren’t doing anything to develop the land ourselves, they’ll come after us again.”
Skeir is quick to admit, however, that the money hasn’t solved Preston’s problems or assured its future. There are a few small businesses in the community, but no industry. Young Black people, especially the educated ones, find there are no jobs for them in Preston, where unemployment sometimes tops 60 percent of the workforce. “We’ve lost a lot of our educated young people to places like Toronto,” Skeir says, “and they don’t come back.”
The population is declining. A report in 1964 estimated there were 3,700 people in Preston. By 1979, another study suggested that fewer than 2,500 people still lived there, and projected the population could drop to 1,500 by 2000 if nothing was done.
Wayne Adams wants plenty of things done. He wants the provincial government to buy back or expropriate Preston land now in the hands of absentee landowners, and turn it over to a community development corporation, which could then use it to help develop local industries such as a hog raising and slaughtering co-op, or small factories. Adams says, “We’ve got to have a period of special compensation to catch up commercially.”
So far, however, government hasn’t listened. The community applied last year under a federal program to provide funds for areas that have experienced years of continuing economic deprivation. “We had a fine proposal, with volumes of back-up stuff and all kinds of expertise involved,” Adams remembers. “I talked to people in the government who said it was the best proposal they’d seen.” Despite that, however, the only Nova Scotia project approved was in Richmond County, which also happens to be in federal Finance Minister Allan MacEachen’s constituency. “That was the most frustrating experience of my whole political career,” Adams says.
What makes Adams so angry is that he’s convinced Preston doesn’t have much time left. “We managed to put the brakes on Dartmouth’s expansion for a while with the development plan,” he says, “but we can’t sit back on our laurels now. Dartmouth is going to keep looking at Preston and if they think we aren’t doing anything to develop the land ourselves, they’ll come after us again. And you know where that could lead?”