Black Coal Miner – Cape Breton

Cape Breton Black Settlement – In the early 1900’s many immigrants came to Cape Breton as laborers to work for the Dominion Iron and Steel Company. They settled in the city of Sydney and in the Cape Breton mining towns of Glace Bay and New Waterford. Among the immigrants to settle in Cape Breton were West Indian Blacks from Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, Guyana, and other Caribbean locations. Other Black settlers came from smaller Nova Scotia centers such as Guysborough and Tracadie. The plant hired individuals accustomed to tropical climates on the premise that they would be able to withstand the hot conditions associated with the steel making. One group of immigrants originally from the West Indies came over from Alabama because they were offered double the wages they were making. These individuals did not stay long as the harsh bitter winters were too difficult for them.  

The West Indian immigrants continued to immigrate to Cape Breton for the first few decades of the 1900’s. Following the first group of wage laborers, there arrived a group of West Indians who established small businesses in Whitney Pier. They were proud owners of grocery, book, and jewelry stores, and provided other services such as shoemaking, tailoring, carpentry, and plastering. The immigration also brought professionals from West Indies to Canada. One of the more socially prominent immigrants was Doctor Alvinus Calder, a native of Grenada, and a graduate of McGill University who set up a practice in Whitney Pier. A lawyer named F.A. Hamilton, from Barbados, practiced law in Sydney and published a province wide weekly newspaper about Blacks called The Gleaner.

Religion – The West Indians formed different social organizations and worshipped in the churches of their choice. The early West Indians worshipped at St. Cyprian’s, St. Albans, Trinity United, the United Mission, and St. Philip’s African Orthodox Church. St. Philip’s became the focal point of the Black West Indian community. It is also the only African Orthodox parish in Canada.

Whitney Pier Blacks Protest Conditions

St. Philip’s St. Philip’s was established in 1921 as a result of a racial incident that occurred when the Black people of Whitney Pier were met with opposition to their attending a local church. Some blacks continued to attend services at the religious institutions. However, others did not feel comfortable attending and sought a church of their own. Thus came the need within the Black community of Whitney Pier for a church catering to their distinctive needs. Soon after the incident, members of the Black community applied to the African Orthodox Church in New York seeking permission to establish their own congregation in Sydney. Permission was granted and St. Philip’s African Orthodox Church was formed. St. Philips is proud of its African and West Indian background but welcome all races to the church. Often you will hear Archbishop Vincent Waterman state, “There is only one race – the human race.”

Education – Education was a motivating force in the lifestyle of most of the families from the West Indies. Education meant opportunity. The children of the West Indian families knew early in life they needed to have an education. Both the quality and quantity of education would determine their future and their pursuit of happiness. The West Indians came as people who were already well educated and taught their children the value of education.

(Many Cape Bretoners held unreasonable prejudices against Blacks. I remember once only a few years ago I asked this friend (?) of mine how was his brother doing and he told me he married a Black  woman from Sydney. “Bye he said, I can be in the living room and if she enters the kitchen I know she’s in the house because they have a smell about them, same as in the Pit, you could smell them.” And her a beautiful Registered Nurse. The only smell he could detect was his. CAPER)

Overcoming Obstacles – The West Indians who served in the First World War fought as well as any other Canadians and received a measure of recognition. However, these same men and women often had to win respect all over again in the streets of Cape Breton.  

Fewer job opportunities were available to Blacks than to other workers in the steel and coal industries. Jobs offered to black laborers were usually known as “dirty jobs” such as laborer in the coke ovens department of the steel plant. (This would be the area, which lead to one of the worst toxic sites in Canada). Blacks from the West Indies were among many cultural groups recruited to work in the coke ovens. Advancement in the steel plant and coalmines was highly unlikely for Black people.

(I borrowed much of my information on Racism in the following section from Isaac Saney from Halifax – CAPER)Racism – Who is to blame for racism? What is

its cause and aim? Is it merely a matter

of skin colour? Of genetics? Of so-called ‘human nature’?


Black in Bondage

The question may be asked: What lead to the destruction of this climate of mutual

respect? History gives one dominating answer: the Atlantic Slave Trade. While slavery

 is an ancient institution, for most of world history it was not a condition identified or

 linked to skin colour. What is often forgotten is that the Irish were bought and sold in

English markets in the Middle Ages. The Irish were the first people sold as slaves in

the Caribbean, totaling over 100,000. The Irish were white – as were the Acadian

people of Maritime Canada. Racism is a weapon of exploiters to single out or target

definite peoples for attack. It is not a matter of colour.

Early Black-White relations in North America – Early Black-white relations in

 North America are usually conceived as defined by the racial divide and inevitable

 conflict. The historical record reveals quite a different relationship: one in which

both blacks – those in servitude and those who had earned and won their freedom –

 and poor whites – the overwhelming majority of the white population – shared,

trial and tribulation. The idea of whiteness and white people, separate and apart f

rom blackness and black people did not as yet exist. This was to come later as a d

irect product of the development of racist ideology, not just to justify slavery but

 to drive a wedge between black and white.

Blacks and Irish were Enslaved in America – 1876

(Both my grand fathers were in their teens then – CAPER)

“Working together in the same fields, sharing the same huts, the same situation,

and the same grievances, the first black and white Americans, aristocrats excepted,

 developed strong bonds of sympathy and mutuality. They ran away together, played

 together and revolted together … In the process, the black and white servants –

the majority of the colonial population – created a racial wonderland that seems s

omehow un-American in its lack of obsession about race and colour. There was to

be sure prejudice then, but it was largely English class prejudice which was distri

buted without regard to race, creed or colour.”

Newly Arrived Miners from Georgia for Cape Breton Coal Mines

A most powerful feature of this early era is “the equality of oppression” between

white and black. Indeed, in the first years of slavery indentured white servants

were often treated as badly as enslaved Africans, with blacks and whites being

held in the same contempt and assigned similar tasks. White women not only

worked in the fields but were also flogged by the colonial authorities. Indentured

servants could be bought and sold like livestock, kidnapped, stolen, put up as stakes

 in card games and awarded – even before their arrival in America – to victors

in lawsuits.


Some examples illuminate the prevailing state of affairs. In 1663, white servants and black slaves in Gloucester Co., Virginia planned to stage a rebellion to win their freedom. Their plans were discovered and many were executed. In

New York in 1741, poor whites and slaves were accused of conspiracy. After a

trial 35 persons were executed. Bacon’s Rebellion was probably the most

dramatic example. This uprising of white frontiersmen, slaves and servants in

 1676 forced the English government to dispatch a thousand troops across the

Atlantic in order to restore order. A group of 80 Africans and 20 English servants

were among the last to surrender.

It should be emphasized that while African resistance and revolt, widespread and

numerous, was the crucial factor in the struggle to abolish slavery, Black people did

 not stand alone: either before or after the conscious creation of the colour line. This

 aid – overwhelmingly from the lower class persisted in the face of concerted efforts

by the slaveholders to eliminate anti-slavery opponents and organizations. Joining

this great struggle were white allies: who came in the main from among the poor …

 No, it was the ‘plain’ man and woman, the artisan and mechanic, the factory worker,

the yeoman and small farmer, the poor housewife who formed the bulk of the

membership of the Abolitionist societies, despite intimidations; who contributed

the largest part of the pennies and dollars with which the Abolitionist movement

 printed and distributed the pamphlets, petitions and papers appealing for justice

 and condemning oppression.

Sailor Removing Shackles from Freed Slave

While the ruling elites were terrified of black revolt, they were thrown into panic

 by the prospect of continued and widespread joint white-black rebellion. This

would threaten to overthrow the existing order. It was noted at the time  that in

the wake of these uprisings, particularly Bacon’s Rebellion, the plantation owners

concluded that “if freemen (i.e., whites) with disappointed hopes, should make

 common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than

anything that the Rebellion had done.” The Anglo-American ruling class, by

deliberate policy, drew the colour line between freedom and slavery, “on race lines:

any trace of African ancestry carried the presumption of slavery.”

As a result, the Virginia Assembly enacted various measures toward this end,

 including the slave codes that dictated discipline and punishment.  Virginia’s

ruling class, having proclaimed that all white men were superior to black, went

on to offer their social (but white) inferiors a number of benefits previously denied

them. In 1705 a law was passed requiring masters to provide white servants

whose indenture time was up with ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun,

while women were to get fifteen bushels of corn and forty shillings. Also, the newly

 freed servants were to get fifty acres of land. This was done not so much to offer a

measure of freedom but out of fear of the lower class whites and to place a wedge

between them and the blacks.

  *Isaac Saney, editor of Shunpiking Magazone’s Black History Supplement, is on faculty, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS.”  

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