09/17/2011 04:59 EDT | Updated 11/18/2011 05:12 EST

Hiring Of White Woman To Help Oversee Heritage Trust For Halifax's Africville Sparks Controversy

HALIFAX - The hiring of a white woman as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust, a body created to redress the destruction of a Halifax-area black community in the 1960s, has generated a polarizing debate on race.

Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a Halifax lawyer and human rights activist, is calling for the dismissal of Carole Nixon after she was recently hired to help oversee the trust.

Jones said he believes the hiring process was flawed because the job wasn't widely advertised and that Nixon's hiring ignored the sensitivities of some in the local black community.

"How could a white woman from Ontario be able to explain what we would go through growing up as a black person in Africville, facing the kind of racism and degradation the people had to live through?" said Jones.

"It's impossible for anyone without that experience to interpret that."

Jones said he thinks the ramifications of Nixon's hiring were not fully thought through, and that the position should be reposted for black candidates only.

"What message does a hiring such as this send to our kids that are looking for opportunity and leadership positions in our community?"

The trust was set up to establish a memorial to Africville, a black community situated in Halifax's north end that was set up by former slaves in the early 1800s on the shore overlooking Bedford Basin.

It was torn down in the 1960s on the orders of municipal officials to clear the way for the construction of a new bridge across Halifax harbour as part of an urban renewal initiative.

The executive director's job, which pays $66,000 annually, is to fundraise and manage development of a church and an interpretive centre on the site.

"Here's Africville. They struggled for years. They finally get a bit of a settlement and who gets the job? No one in the community," said Jones.

Nixon, an Anglican priest with a university certificate in black history, was hired by the trust’s board of directors, six of whom have roots in Africville. She said she planned to see the job through.

She said she doesn't take calls for her to step down personally because she understands the emotional devastation racism has caused.

"I understand that the pain will bubble up from time to time, but for the sake of one's health and well-being one has to find a way to move on from it," said Nixon.

"We're surrounded by racism of one form or another and one could even say that this is reverse discrimination where I'm being penalized because I'm white."

Nixon, who previously served as a parish priest in Shelburne, N.S., said she applied for the position while living in Toronto by responding to a posting on a not-for-profit job sector website.

Nixon said she was hired because she had experience in fundraising and community development, and had overseen construction projects.

She said she believes the people of Africville remain committed to working with anyone who can help get the job done, regardless of race.

Nixon said those opposed to her hiring lack an understanding of the role she has taken on as a staff person tasked with implementing board policies, not creating them.

The uproar over her hiring prompted a flurry of letters in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on Saturday. Some accuse Jones of ignoring the fact the world has moved on.

But Jones says that reaction is one-sided and lacks perspective.

"We do face on a daily basis either subtle forms of racism and discrimination or even institutional racism. That has not disappeared," he said.

"To argue that we're in a different era is to argue against the reality of what we see and experience everyday."

Jones and others opposed to Nixon's hiring have organized a meeting for Tuesday night in a north-end community centre to discuss ways of further addressing the issue.

Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly issued an apology last year for the destruction of Africville and outlined plans for a $3-million contribution towards the reconstruction and operation of the Seaview United Baptist Church to serve as a memorial.

The municipality has also agreed to provide about a hectare of land at Seaview Park to the Africville Heritage Trust.

The former Africville land is now a park and a national heritage site.