The 1917 Halifax Explosion and Structural Anti-Blackness in Times of Crisis

Aftermath of the Halifax Explosion (Wikimedia Commons)

Last fall, two local researchers from Halifax, Nova Scotia published their original findings of racial disparities in the relief efforts of the Halifax Relief Commission (HRC) after the 1917 Halifax Explosion (“Explosion Study”). The catastrophic event in the small, working-class seaside community occurred on December 6, 1917, when two ships collided in the Halifax harbor. One, a munitions ship carrying 3,000 tons of TNT and other explosives, exploded, producing the largest pre-atomic human-made explosion in history. The incineration flattened much of Halifax—killing 2,000 people, maiming many thousands, and devastating the economy. In the immediate aftermath, the HRC was hastily formed with a mission, according to researchers Mark Culligan and Katrin MacPhee, of “restoring Haligonians to their pre-Explosion state” and was managed by the city’s elite to oversee the distribution of $30 million of relief funding—valued at $650,000,000 today. While this history of the Halifax Explosion has been retold over the last century through a shared narrative that “the Explosion united all Haligonians, in suffering and in reconstruction,” the devastating event “did not burden all equally.”

The arrival of the Explosion Study last fall was timely. As a new family to the city, my daughter was assigned a novel about the Halifax Explosion in their fourth-grade class. The 1917 Explosion is well-commemorated within the historiography of twentieth century Nova Scotia, and the city is dotted with memorials and museum exhibits marking the tragic event. I was excited that we could learn about the history of the Halifax Explosion together. Yet, as I combed through the Explosion Study and its supporting materials, I quickly understood that my child was learning a very distinct history from the one I was learning at the same time—my child was reading a history, narrated through the eyes of kindly white school children, that touted raceless Haligonian unity and working-class solidarity during a time of disaster. The story was antithetical to the data-driven study I was reading.

The Explosion Study reviewed the files of all African Nova Scotian relief claimants and detailed the ways they were treated with the distinction of discrimination and contempt by HRC social workers.1 Importantly, the claims process prioritized wage earners and property owners at a time when most African Nova Scotians were, knowingly, segregated into low paying, precarious jobs and owned little real property. As a result, few African Nova Scotians “were even eligible to receive aid at a level comparable to that paid to white Haligonians.” Although African Nova Scotians submitted only fifty claim files, thirty-five percent contained detailed notes by social workers doubting the veracity of Black claimants’ injuries and losses—compared with 16% of all other files reviewed. Social workers commonly accused Black claimants of lying about their physical injuries, even when their wounds were fresh and doctor’s notes were provided. In sum, Black claimants received lower amounts of compensation for personal losses, per capita relief, and temporary income aid than white claimants. In addition to documenting the skepticism and indifference recorded in social workers’ files, the authors conclude that “the decision of the Relief Commission to prioritize the compensation of lost property, not lost wages, systemically devalued the losses of African Nova Scotians” after the Explosion. This decision during a time of profound need augmented the poverty of Black survivors in the decades following.

While it will be tempting to relegate the Explosion Study’s findings to a ‘bygone era’ of racial intolerance, the information inscribed in files by white social workers—those specially tasked with “restoring Haligonians to their pre-explosion state”—provides salient information about the long history of anti-Blackness in Halifax, as well as its living history. As the renowned historian Ira Berlin oft repeated, “History is not about the past; it is about arguments we have about the past. And because it is about arguments that we have, it is about us” in the present. As such, the study of the HRC’s discrimination in the aftermath of Halifax’s most arresting, catastrophic event is as much about the power and carry of historical narratives, as it is about the orderly constellation of anti-Blackness in Nova Scotia—whose million stars, each a distinct racial violence, seem to incessantly elude those who “think they are white”: After news of the Explosion study’s findings was announced, a well-respected Maritime historian insisted that the HRC’s efforts were both pure and rational. At such a clamorous moment, he rationalized, there was “neither time nor incentive to make racial distinctions among bona fide survivors with legitimate claims. To allege otherwise is presentism.”

But such appeals to “presentism” are the very kind that Berlin redlined in his reflections about the production of history. Such appeals invigorate the myth of a cherished history’s unifying moment through specious denials, tossing aside the very absences that are “constitutive of the production of history.” Such appeals neutralize sullying contests through the seductive logic of formal equality and colorblindness. Despite racial category boxes on standardized HRC claim forms, social workers exclusively signaled the race of Black claimants. They detailed, in no uncertain terms, their selective beliefs about these conspicuous people who presented their bodies and losses before them. One social worker was “doubtful” about the causes of Mrs. Lucas’ missing eye, an injury shared by hundreds of others, and her husband’s back injury, despite doctor’s notes detailing the severity of their injuries. “Suggest investigation,” she scribbled across their file before cutting their food relief. Mr. Mantley’s claim was denied outright, as his social worker wrote that he was “quite able to work, but wants a holiday on the strength of the explosion.”

As elsewhere in the early twentieth century, social workers played a crucial and determinative role in allotting support to Black people that they, alone, judged respectable and honest. The standards they applied were strict and unforgiving for Black claimants; white claimants were commonly met with generosity. After the “constantly drunk” Mrs. O’Rouke was caught in a lie about her marital status, her social worker nonetheless awarded handsome sums for real estate and personal effects losses, as well as monies for immediate relief. On the other hand, Mrs. Bowen and her six children were offered no food, coal, or other immediate relief. “(Coloured),” her social worker wrote. “Mrs. Bowen claims to be a widow, husband having died five years ago.” As the authors conclude, the HRC “prioritized the restoration of the pre-Explosion social order over needs-based relief distribution.” In short, the HRC reified the old racial order that the Explosion threatened to disrupt with its leveling gesture of loss. It also invigorated African Nova Scotians’ economic disadvantage for decades after the catastrophic community event through disproportionate, unjustified denials of claims.

A few years after the 1917 Explosion, this pattern was again seen through the exclusion of “agricultural labor” and “domestic service in a private home” in the race neutral language of the 1935 U.S. Social Security Act (SSA).2 While popularly remembered as a system of “government-engineered recovery and rights for all Americans” created to assuage the devastation of the Great Depression, most Black Americans benefited little from its aspirational design: Sixty-five percent of Black Americans and up to eighty percent of Black southerners were excluded from old age and unemployment benefits at a time of urgent social need. These exclusions also hindered Black wealth accumulation in the decades following. Akin to the limiting restrictions in the SSA, claim conditions established by the HRC were also “well-understood to be a proxy for the exclusion” of most Black workers.

As an allegory for our now, the Explosion Study recalls the ways that structural racism is exacerbated in times of social crisis. One could describe the findings as a model of the “racial shock doctrine”—using Naomi Klein’s 2007 thesis about the force of state exploitation during periods of swift-moving, “shocking” social disruption such as the 1917 Halifax Explosion and the COVID-19 virus of today. As Klein’s work reminds, such moments are ripe for the implementation of wrongful or unconstitutional policies when most are too overwhelmed with the mundane details of survival for dissent. These, too, are the moments when Black suffering is funneled through universal public relief designs that minimize losses in private. Crucial to the coupling of disaster, exploitation, and anti-Blackness, is a social expectation of blind conformity, a ‘for-the-good-of-all’ chorale, that ultimately shapes and reinforces the historical narratives that children, like mine, grow up reading. It is not accidental these are the same circular narratives that esteemed historians are intent on spinning, despite all science to the contrary.

  1. “African Nova Scotian” is the preferred term for Black peoples in Nova Scotia who can trace their genealogy to Black arrival from the United States in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
  2. See Social Security Act, ch. 531, tit. II, § 210(b)(1)-(2), 49 Stat. 620, 625 (1935).
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Rachel Zellars

Rachel Zellars is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice and Community Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her work focuses on the history of slavery in Canada, Black migration through the Maritimes and into the Atlantic world beginning in the 18th century, as well as gender violence and disability. She is also a co-founder of the ​Third Eye Collective. Follow her on Twitter @rachelzellars.​

Comments on “The 1917 Halifax Explosion and Structural Anti-Blackness in Times of Crisis

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    American “liberals” have some very wishful thinking about Canada as a liberal mecca, based solely on how middle-class white Canadians fare. Although I am from the U.S., my partner is from the Maritimes, and I’ve learned that the history *and* the present-day treatment of First Nations peoples, as well as Canadians of Asian and African ancestry, reveals far less admirable truths about Canadian society. I do think Canadians can be more focused than Americans on the social good of the group over the individual, but who is considered inside “the group” is often defined through implicit (and at times explicit) bias. Thank you, Rachel Zellars, for sharing this unfortunately still timely piece.

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    This Is a really dope piece Dr. Zellars! Love the last two paragraphs that connect this to Social Security, the Great Depression and COVID.

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    Excellent writing and historical recovery!

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