For those of you who might not know, I’m Canadian. You might not guess it from the amount of Canadian history I delve into on this blog (i.e. basically none). But sometimes you’ll be researching something and a fascinating story just falls into your lap.
Meet Rose Fortune. Born the daughter of slaves in Philadelphia around 1774, not much is known about Fortune’s early life.
During the American Revolutionary wars, the British made a very tempting offer: if black slaves managed to cross enemy lines and fight for the British, they were promised freedom, land, and money. About 30,000 people heeded this call and took the risk. It is assumed the Fortune family were included in these 30,000.
When it was clear the British were going to lose the war, 2000 “Black Loyalists” (dubbed this because of their loyalty to the Crown) boarded ships destined for Nova Scotia, arriving in 1783. Aboard one of these ships to Nova Scotia was “Fortune — a free Negro” and his wife and young daughter, almost certainly Rose.
Small communities of Black Loyalists sprouted up all over the Maritimes. However, none of the land and cash promised to them ever materialized so many Black Loyalists were back working for wealthy white folks, just in a different country and under different circumstances. Many suffered in the harsh Canadian winter they weren’t used to. Many were treated poorly and paid unfairly. (Hey, just because they were in Canada, doesn’t mean they’d escaped racism. Not by a long shot.)
When the chances to return to Africa surface, roughly half of the disappointed Black Loyalists jumped at the chance. But it appears the Fortunes stayed in Annapolis Royal.
Fun Fact: I grew up in Nova Scotia. I visited Annapolis Royal with my family on a regular basis and still maintain that it’s one of the most beautiful places in Atlantic Canada.
In 1825, when Rose was about 42, she started a business in Annapolis Royal. (It was the early 1800s. African-Canadians wouldn’t have exactly been encouraged to be entrepreneurs during this period in history.)
(While doing research for this article, I learned that there was a segregated school open in Nova Scotia until 1983. That was 35 years ago. I’m in shock over that.)
Rose made her living moving luggage in her from the nearby ferry to hotels and homes using a wheelbarrow. She also started a wake-up call service for travelers in Annapolis Royal so they wouldn’t miss the ferry. She was eventually given the post of waterfront police officer, patrolling the dock and enforcing curfews. Because of this, she is considered by many to be Canada’s first female police officer.
In 1841, her grandson had taken over the luggage transport business, then known as Lewis Transfer, and the wheelbarrow was upgraded to horse-drawn wagons. Her descendants carried on the business until 1980 and several of her family members still work in the transport industry.
Rose died at the age of 89 in her home in Annapolis Royal in 1864. One of her descendants, Daurene Lewis, became the first black woman elected mayor in Canada in 1984.
I didn’t know this when I was researching this post, but Rose Fortune was named a Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada just last month. Hurray for Rose Fortune!