Originally created 02/14/99

South Carolina's slave heritage uncovered in Nova Scotia

TRACADIE, Nova Scotia -- Carmelita Robertson trudges through the scrub and up the muddy trail, a tiny woman with a powerful mission -- to dig up her black past and expose it to the world.

She pauses in a grove of birches, their graceful white barks strangely out of place on this pine-covered hill above the ocean.

Gently, she strokes a fallen limb.

"The trees," she says softly, "are like the people who once settled here -- an odd outcrop. They don't really seem to belong."

In a sense, Robertson seems oddly out of place herself, a black Canadian whose ancestors were captured in Africa, enslaved in South Carolina, and escaped to freedom in the rocky desolation of northern Nova Scotia.

In the 1780s they were among thousands of former slaves who won their passage, and the promise of land, after fighting with the British during the American Revolution. Boarding ships in New York, they sailed to Nova Scotia and landed near Birchtown on the south shore. They dug holes in the ground to survive the first winters, lining them with pine needles and ferns. Later, they moved to other towns, including Tracadie, building homes and churches and schools.

Some found the promised land. But the majority found a harsh climate and an unyielding soil, sickness and hunger, confusion over land grants, and prejudices that grew as provisions dwindled. Nine years after arriving, many grabbed the British offer to relocate them again, to another promised land, to Sierre Leone in Africa.

Today only a handful of black families remain, and there are few reminders of what was once the largest settlement of free blacks in North America.

Among these early settlers were Benjamin and Hagar Gero, and Andrew Izzard and his wife, Nancy Ann Richardson -- Carmelita's great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents.

Are they buried beneath the birches on the hill above the harbor? Tradition suggests that this was a graveyard for black loyalists. Last summer two sandstone slabs, possibly tombstones, were excavated at this spot.

"I'd like to think they are here," says Carmelita, who imagines their spirits calling to her in the rustle of the leaves. "But I need more proof. I need to know for sure."

She has so many questions when she stands beneath these trees. What did they think when they sailed up this coast? How did they cope with the cold and the rock? Did they finally feel free? What did freedom feel like?

Benjamin. Hagar. Andrew. Nancy Ann. When they gazed out at the Atlantic, did they ever long for home, for their first home, for Africa?

"This was all black land," says Carmelita, standing on a cliff, pointing to a sweeping expanse of hills and woods. Three thousand acres granted by the British to 74 black families in 1787.

"The Izzards and the Dismals, the Bordens and Geros," she says, their names rolling off her tongue like a prayer. "Today there is hardly any trace of how they lived and died."

If her ancestors' odyssey was extraordinary, so is Carmelita's quest to document it. It has taken her from Germany, where she grew up, to Nova Scotia where she settled, to the overgrown rice fields of South Carolina where Hagar and Benjamin and Andrew once worked. It has taken her to libraries and archives, where she has spent hours poring over old birth and death certificates, slave inventories, land deeds, British muster rolls.

And it has introduced her to Ruth Holmes Whitehead, descendant of a slave ship captain, native of Charleston, fellow researcher, historian, friend.

The two women have long stopped marveling at how their paths crossed, at the stream of coincidences that propelled their research, at the probability that Whitehead's descendants owned Robertson's.

For the moment, they concentrate on telling the stories of the blacks from South Carolina who traveled to Nova Scotia more than 200 years ago. They are well positioned to do so. Both are trained historians and archivists who work, in different capacities, for the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in Halifax.

Ruth, 52, has worked there for 26 years as an ethnologist, an expert on the Mi'kmaq Indians. Carmelita, 36, worked at the public archives and was hired by the museum in 1995 to help start a black history data base.

Neither knew about the other's background until a fateful lunch that summer when Carmelita told Ruth about Benjamin and Hagar, Andrew and Nancy Ann.

She had traced their names back to the Book of Negroes, a British inspection roll of former slaves who were granted certificates to board ships in New York. The rolls record the name, age and description of every black passenger, including their former masters and where they lived. Among those who boarded the Nisbet, bound for Nova Scotia on Nov. 19, 1783:

-- Andrew Izzard, 28, stout fellow, formerly the property of Ralph Izzard, Charleston, S.C.; left him five years ago.

-- Benjamin Gerrow, 25, stout fellow, formerly slave to Peter Gerrow, Charleston, S.C.

-- Hagar, 20, stout wench, formerly slaved to Thomas Broughton, Canonachee, S.C., left him in 1779.

Her dream, Carmelita told Ruth, was to one day walk the land where they had been enslaved, plantations in South Carolina with names like The Elms and Mulberry.

"Carm," Ruth exclaimed. "I know those names. I grew up near those plantations."

Ruth's family was related to the Broughtons who had once owned Hagar. She knew the town house in Charleston where Ralph Izzard had lived. She had connections in South Carolina, including a slew of cousins and sources at the Charleston museum.

"How would you feel," Carmelita wondered, "if you found that your ancestors once owned mine?"

"More to the point," Ruth said. "How would you feel?"

"It's just history," Carmelita replied.

But both know that their work is so much more, a personal pilgrimage to expose a past that many would rather forget, a shared faith that in telling the stories of these early settlers they are ensuring that the black loyalist experience will be remembered forever.

In the 3´ years since their lunch, Carmelita and Ruth have secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for their research, which included two small archaeological digs last summer, one at Birchtown on the south shore, the other at Tracadie, near Cape Breton, where Robertson's people were from. They have worked with community groups to erect plaques, to document land grants, to piece together genealogies. They have produced a documentary. They have met each other's families.

And they have traveled to South Carolina together and walked in the footsteps of their past.

Midsummer on Mulberry plantation, about 15 miles north of Charleston. The gracious red-brick house looks much as it did in the 1700s, flanked by moss-covered oaks, the lawns sloping to the old rice fields on the Cooper River. A grassy depression marks the spot once lined by slave huts, where Hagar lived.

Walking the grounds, Carmelita felt a rush of anger when she thought of how this beautiful place had been built, "on the blood of people working in that heat."

All her years of research, all her digging, hadn't prepared her for such feelings. She ran behind the big house and wept.

"They were tears of sadness and grief," she says, "but also pride, that someone had made it back, that someone had escaped and returned, that their legacy, their line, continues.

"I felt that they were embracing me, welcoming me home."

Ruth watched from a distance and contemplated her own family's complicity in her friend's pain. Her relatives had once owned Mulberry; one of her cousins was showing them around.

Could the evil generated by slavery ever be erased?

And what of their relationship as they continued to dig up more sorrow? Might Carmelita one day look at her as the daughter of the enemy?

Carmelita has no such doubts. Fate has brought them together, she says, and her ancestors are showing them the way.

That is why they have been so lucky, discovering documents and artifacts, finding cousins black and white whom they had never known. Perhaps one day they will learn that they are related, too.

"It is meant to be," Carmelita says.

For all her certainty, Carmelita's faith sometimes falters. In Charleston, after visiting Mulberry, the two women went to Broad Street, to a pink stucco townhouse with ornate railings and a heavy black wooden door. Ralph Izzard had once owned this house -- and her ancestor Andrew. Standing on front step, Carmelita wanted to shout to the world, "Look at how far we have come."

Instead, she rapped on the door. No one answered.

"Thank God," she says now. "I really wouldn't have known what to say."

There have been many moments during her research when words weren't enough, when history seemed overwhelming. Crawling into the grassy remains of a "pit-house," a hole in the ground where a black family lived, Carmelita shuddered at how they had survived. Tramping through Birchtown with Ruth, she puzzled over the 18 stone mounds neatly spaced in the woods. Archaeologists have seen nothing like them in Nova Scotia. Are they burial grounds of black loyalists? Do they have some connection to African symbols or rituals?

So many mysteries. In the grove of birches, Carmelita begs her ancestors for guidance.

"Hagar. Benjamin. Andrew," she whispers. "I have found so much. I know your names and your ages and where you were enslaved. I know how you got to Nova Scotia. But I'm still not satisfied. I need more. Show me where to look."

Carmelita knows she may never have a piece of her past, a pipe of Benjamin's or a button of Hagar's, proof that the names scribbled in ink on faded documents had flesh and blood and hopes and dreams. She wants something to hold.

"They got 3,000 acres in Tracadie," she says. "They must have dropped something."

In one small dig in Birchtown last summer, archaeologists excavated hundreds of artifacts: shoe buckles and pearlware, musket balls and keys. They are believed to have belonged to Col. Steven Blucke, a flamboyant soldier from Barbados who prospered after fighting with the British, becoming leader of the black loyalists in Birchtown.

Carmelita and Ruth have a tender spot for Blucke, for how he conquered his world. For most blacks, Ruth says, "coming here was hell."

Smallpox, famine, the cold, and a bewildering, often chaotic society in which black and white loyalists, indentured servants, soldiers, former slaves, runaway slaves, British agents and Mi'kmaq Indians all struggled to work and live together.

Blacks were granted land, but it was often inferior. They got rations of cornmeal and molasses, but only after the white loyalists got theirs. Despite their independence, many were haunted by the fear that they might be recaptured, or betrayed, and sold back into slavery.

"I think I never saw wretchedness and poverty so strongly perceptible in the garb and countenance of the human species as in these miserable outcasts," wrote British Gen. William Dyott, after visiting Birchtown in 1788.

Sometime tensions exploded, as they did in 1784 when former soldiers burned the homes of blacks in Shelburne, inthe first race riot in Canada.

Carmelita and Ruth talk about these times as if they are reliving them. They talk about the characters as if they know them. Blucke, the enigmatic leader; Boston King, the anguished preacher and writer; blind Hannah Lining and her 62-year-old mother, Dinah, who escaped from slavery in South Carolina and made new lives in Nova Scotia.

And, of course, Benjamin and Hagar, Andrew and Nancy Ann.

Carmelita carries an image of Hagar in her mind, small and tough, a bit like herself. But the picture is cloudy, because she doesn't know for sure.

Standing on the cliff above Tracadie harbor, Carmelita laments how much she doesn't know for sure.

"They must have felt safe here," she says, staring down at the cove. "It's so sheltered, so tucked away. They would have known that anyone coming after them would have to go to long lengths to find them."

Carmelita and Ruth have gone to long lengths to find them, to give Hagar and Benjamin and Andrew and Nancy Ann a voice. They have found answers in documents, and in the land.

"We have walked this land in all sorts of weather," Ruth says. "We have walked the land they walked. We have walked in their skin."

One glorious spring day as they stood on this rose-covered cliff, as the Atlantic stretched before them all endless blue and the bogs burnt gold and red in the sun, Ruth turned to Carmelita and then to the hills.

"Look," she cried into the wind. "This is your child. She has returned."

They both bowed to the ancestors.


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