Irvine Carvery's a 'born optimist'

The man most directly — and rightly — credited with keeping the spirit of Africville alive is Irvine Carvery. In Nov. 1994, I wrote this profile of Carvery for the Halifax Daily News.


Irvine Carvery knows what they say. He’s heard them say it. And say it. And say it. “You’re never gonna get nothin’ and blah, blah, blah. . . ” He smiles. “But, hey, I’m a born optimist.” On this afternoon-after-yet-another-pessimistic-night-before, I’m trying to understand the well from which Irvine Carvery’s bubbling optimism springs.

It isn’t easy.

For more than a decade, Carvery, the relentless and relentlessly cheerful president of the Africville Genealogy Society, has been waging a seemingly never-ending but certainly never-won battle to finally get Halifax city fathers to apologize to the former residents of Africville for taking their land in the 1960s and also — and almost as importantly — to allow them to either return to that land and re-establish their community there or at least compensate them for their loss.

The society has had some symbolic successes: a film, a book and a traveling art exhibit have all helped raise public awareness that Africville was far more than the collection of tarpaper shacks the city razed in the name of urban renewal. And everyone now agrees that the community’s former church should be rebuilt, at least as a memorial to Africville’s history. But the society still hasn’t managed to convince the city to admit that what it did in wiping out their community was wrong or to find some way to compensate the former residents.

The latest smack in the face of Irvine Carvery’s optimism had come just the night before our interview when the new Halifax city council — only a week after agreeing to set up a committee of the mayor and two aldermen to try and negotiate some sort of agreement with the genealogy society — passed a sober-second-thought motion restricting the committee from even discussing the question of individual compensation.

“That motion served no purpose, except grandstanding,” says Carvery. “The committee’s recommendations were never going to be binding anyway. Whatever they came up with would have had to be taken back to council. So why put restrictions on what the committee can even discuss? It doesn’t make sense.”

It doesn’t, but — given that this seems to fit a familiar pattern in dealings between the city and the society — how can Carvery still be so optimistic that he will prevail?

He smiles again. “You know the saying, ‘Right makes might?’” he asks. “I really believe that. I know that we’re right and I know that we will win eventually. Right makes might. I was taught that from the beginning.”

The beginning was Africville.

For the first five years of his life, Africville was Irvine Carvery’s entire universe. Fields to play in. Water to swim in. Bedford Basin on the east. Sheltering hills to the west that kept the city at bay.

Sheltering people too.

Irvine remembers the afternoon he cut himself on a bottle while picking blueberries. He didn’t bother to go back home, just stopped in at the first house he came to and someone tended to his wound. In Africville, he says, you were everybody’s kid. It worked both ways, of course. If you didn’t go to Sunday school one week, he says, you knew you were in for it. “If Deacon Manley saw you, he would either give you a clip on the side of the head, or you’d be told pretty good that you were expected to be in Sunday school every Sunday.”

Born in 1951, the second youngest in a family of seven, Irvine grew up in an extended family that included not just his immediate biological family — who shared their house with his older sister’s four children too — but also an entire community of close to 400 people.

The first time Irvine realized the world wasn’t all black, in fact, was when he went to Mulgrave Park Elementary School for the first time and encountered white students and teachers.

Africville’s black students, Irvine recalls, mostly stuck together but there were times, he says, when you’d be kept after school and you’d have to walk home to Africville through north-end Halifax by yourself. “You’d end up on the wrong street and somebody’d say, ‘Get out of here, nigger,’ ‘Go back to the shit-shore where you belong, nigger.’ You’d go into a corner store or a barber shop and someone would say, ‘No niggers allowed here.’”

Africville was a refuge from all of that.

Until the city bulldozed it off the face of the earth and dispersed its people.

Irvine was 13.

His initial excitement about moving to town — the family relocated to a house on a barren stretch of Bedford Row — soon scraped up against the reality that the few benefits of relocation, such as city sewer and water services, were far out-weighed by the fact that the sheltering community he had grown up with was gone.

“When we moved to town, you couldn’t hang around anymore,” he recalls. “If there were more than two guys on the corner, the cops would come by and say you were loitering. Move on. They’d take you down to the police station, some of them would call you nigger. There was no room to breathe. And if you went to court, you knew you went to jail. The court system was racist; there was no Dal Legal Aid. You just knew what would happen to you.”

Carvery was one of the lucky ones. He liked school, did well enough, attended Dalhousie and, in 1974, landed a job at the post office (he’s now a Canada Post retail representative in Dartmouth). In 1976, he married Monica Itwaru, his high school sweetheart, and they began to raise a family of their own.

Carvery didn’t finally discover what he calls “the true meaning of Africville” until the birth of his first child nearly 18 years ago. “Having a child makes you think about more than yourself. And I thought about what it was like when I was young and the importance of being on my grandmother’s front porch listening to her talk to my great-grandfather about what it was like when they were growing up. There was a sense of belonging, a real pride about who you were and where you came from. And I thought, ‘my son is never going to have that.’ That was the start.

“I remembered too seeing my grandmother crying about having to leave her home. And I felt an obligation to them too, to the elders. I thought we had to do what we could to get Africville back in ortder to justify their existence.”

Even before he became president of the Africville Genealogy Society, Carvery made a presentation to city council as a private citizen, demanding the city apologize and give Africville residents back their land. “The city listened to me but nothing happened,” he remembers. “My presentation went to the basement or wherever those things go.”

Carvery didn’t — hasn’t — given up.

And he says he won’t.

“My dream,” he says, “is to go back to the land, back to Africville. I’d move back in a minute. The land is still there. (Seaview Park’s) the most under-utilized land in the city. Think what it could be. . .”

And he’s off. The eternal optimist, imagining the world as he would like it to be.

Carvery’s Africville would include a comfortable mix of private homes, co-ops, public housing and senior citizen’s units “for our elders.” He even has devised a complicated scheme for a trust fund that would allow former residents to swap the houses they now own elsewhere for homes in the new Africville while building up a pot of money that would be used to build community halls and services in the new Africville.

Although former Africville residents and their descendants would have first rights to the land, the new Africville wouldn’t just be for them, he says. It would be for anyone who wanted to re-create the sense of community Cravery remembers.

He will once again lay out that dream sometime this week when he sits down with the new city committee to begin the process of negotiations. Although city council has already circumscribed how much this committee can actually do, Carvery says he’s still hopeful. “I believe in the goodwill of the people of Halifax,” he says. “I think when we lay all the facts out on the table, people are going to see they have no other choice but to find a solution that’s fair to everyone.

He catches my skepticism. “I still believe that if you get on the side of right, that you’ll be okay. Right really does make might. Besides, if you don’t have a dream, you never get nothing.”

Irvine Carvery still has his dream.