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The Past of Black Entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada

February 1, 2023

Celebrating African Heritage Month

Volta, along with the Black Business Initiative (BBI), is proud to announce a limited series of articles celebrating African Heritage Month. Throughout the month of February, we want to take the time to honor the contributions and achievements of Black entrepreneurs, all while sharing different perspectives, tools and resources that we hope will inspire the next generation of Black entrepreneurs to take action and follow their dreams. 

The importance of doing our part cannot be overstated. “We’ve taken on the cause to celebrate and showcase Black excellence in business. There are many who have been doing significant employment and commerce for many years who would normally go unrecognized. If we don’t take that on, they’ll continue to be ignored” says Dr. Rustum Southwell, CEO of the Black Business Initiative.

Let's Take a Look at Black History in Atlantic Canada

To kick off our series we will be focusing on the past of Black entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada and its rich and varied history that stretches back to the earliest days of the region's settlement. Despite facing significant obstacles, including discrimination and limited access to resources, Black entrepreneurs have made significant contributions to the economies of our region, and their stories are an important part of our history.

The earliest Black settlers in Atlantic Canada were brought over as slaves by the French and British in the 1700s. They worked on plantations and in households, but some were able to purchase their freedom and start their own businesses. Take Boston King for example, who purchased his freedom in 1798 and became a successful farmer. He later became a lay preacher and helped establish the first Black church in Nova Scotia. His is just one of the many inspiring stories of determination and resilience that define the history of Black entrepreneurship in the region.

As the economy shifted from agriculture to industry in the 1800s, Black entrepreneurs began to establish themselves in various trades. William Hall, for instance, became the first Black person to receive the Victoria Cross for his service in the British Navy during the Crimean War, and after his service, he settled in Halifax and started a successful shipbuilding business.

In the early 1900s, Black entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada faced significant barriers to success, including discrimination and limited access to resources. However, they continued to make significant contributions to the region's economy, despite these obstacles. Samuel Thompson, for example, started a successful taxi business in Halifax, despite the discrimination he faced.

One of Atlantic Canada's most prominent Black entrepreneurs from the 1900s is Viola Desmond, who founded her own hair salon, beauty school and line of beauty products. If you heard her name before, chances are that it was not associated with entrepreneurship but with her refusal to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre in 1946. Her dedication to equality and justice was truly commendable. 

In recent decades, Black entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada has continued to flourish, with many successful businesses and entrepreneurs. For example, in the 1980s, El Jones started a successful catering business in Halifax. She is now a prominent journalist and community activist.

And while we dedicate time to reflect on these beautiful stories, we must acknowledge that Black history is filled with hardship and struggles, and that is why shedding a light on past Black entrepreneurs from our region is so important. 

Let us take this African Heritage Month to remember and honour the hidden histories of Black entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada, and to recommit ourselves to supporting and uplifting Black business owners in the region and beyond.

Learn More about Black History in Canada and Our Region

If you enjoyed learning about the life stories of Black Canadian entrepreneurs, please follow Volta's newly created TikTok channel where we will be sharing short-form videos featuring some heavy hitters like Viola Desmond, Rufus Rockhead and Beverly Mascoll. 

And if you're interested in learning more about Black history and culture in Nova Scotia, we strongly suggest visiting sites such as the Africville Museum and the Black Cultural Centre, as well as engaging with organizations hosting events for African Heritage Month such as the City of Halifax and the Halifax Public Libraries

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