ANNAPOLIS ROYAL - Almost 150 years after her death Annapolis Royal’s most well known Black Loyalist is being recognized as a person of national historic significance in Canada.
Rose Fortune joins fellow Nova Scotians Viola Desmond and Helen Creighton in the prestigious distinction announced Jan. 12 by Catherine McKenna, Minister Responsible for Parks Canada.
Alan Melanson, with The Historical Association of Annapolis Royal, wrote the nomination letter to champion Fortune who came to Annapolis Royal in the early 1780s, the daughter of freed slaves. The nomination had the support of Tony Ince, Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs.
“I’ve posted on Facebook. I’ve had maybe 8,000 people see it,” said Melanson of the announcement, adding there are comments on the page from people related to Fortune who are very happy. “It’s kind of fun when you can make a difference in people’s lives and how they see themselves in history.”
He equated it to the poem Evangeline that he said woke up an Acadian pride. He said often in history women and minorities have not gone to the forefront.
“We didn’t nominate Rose Fortune for ourselves,” Melanson said in reference to the historical association. “We felt she was a person of importance in the history of this area, and also a person that people today and in the future can have a link to the story and look to for inspiration and show that you can make it.”
“She was somebody who had lots of fortitude, strength of character, and was somebody who wouldn’t maybe take no for an answer,” Melanson said. “She found a place for herself despite many circumstances that the lesser person would not have been able to succeed in.”
“Rose Fortune’s life and accomplishments represent the struggle of the Black Loyalist community, and Black Loyalist women in 18th century British colony of Nova Scotia,” a Parks Canada citation said. “One of more than 3,000 Black Loyalists who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783-84, Fortune defied the barriers and prejudices of the time to become a respected and prominent member of the community.”
Melanson, who worked for Parks Canada for many years, conducts the famous graveyard tours at Fort Anne where Fortune is buried, and takes visitors on tours of the town, said he expects he’s told the Rose Fortune story about 18,000 times going back to 1980.
One of the many thousands who went on Melanson’s graveyard tour was New York playwright George Cameron Grant.
“In the summer of 2014, I visited the Nova Scotia town of Annapolis Royal, beginning a much needed vacation,” said Grant in a 2017 interview with The Spectator. “On the first night of my arrival, during a candlelight graveyard tour given by historian Alan Melanson, I found myself standing before an unmarked grave, learning about the most unforgettable woman I have ever encountered, Black Loyalist Rose Fortune.”
It was a moment that would change the American playwright’s life.
“As I departed Garrison Cemetery, I realized I was no longer on vacation, but on a mission to see her name etched upon a memorial dedicated to her remarkable life, and to bring the story of that life to the world,” Grant said.
He was true to his word. He wrote a play titled Fortune that has played off Broadway and in 2017 he was in Annapolis Royal for the July 1 unveiling a monument bench in tribute to Fortune.
Grant cried as the stone bench, created by sculptor Brad Hall, was unveiled by Melanson.
"This is yet another magnificent step on a journey that started for me four years ago in Garrison Cemetery,” Grant said Tuesday. “I've been honored to be a part of a journey that has inspired me to write a play about this amazing woman, has brought us a new ferry bearing her name, and has given us a stunning memorial created by Brad Hall in her memory, which has become a beacon for descendants of Rose, a gathering place for reuniting a family that was torn apart by conflict over a century and a half ago.
“So this honor is not an ending, only a beginning, and now every week, some other member of Rose's family reaches out in wonder and gratitude,” Grant said. “What a privilege it is to witness this reconnection, and I look forward to many more reunions at Rose's memorial.”
Grant was inspired by Fortune’s courage.
“In the face of the many threats Black women of her time encountered, she is known for keeping peace and order on the waterfront where she worked for more than 20 years,” said the Parks Canada citation. “Since the early 20th century, Fortune’s story has become a source of ongoing pride to the African-Canadian community. Her life represents the endurance and survival of the Black Loyalists, the first wave of northward Black migration, who overcame prejudice and economic marginalization to make their place in this country.”
“When it met in June 2015, Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada considered the national historic significance of Rose Fortune and recommended her designation,” Minister McKenna said in a letter to the Melansons earlier this month.
Alan Melanson refers to Rose Fortune as a refugee and notes that she was born about 1774 at the beginning of the American Revolution, fled as a freed slave to another British territory, and lived to 1864 almost long enough to see the abolition of slavery in the US.
“As an adult, Rose Fortune became a figure of renown in Annapolis Royal and throughout Nova Scotia for her business of carting baggage to and from the waterfront and for acting as the unofficial town ‘police officer’ well before the existence of a professional police force,” the citation notes. “Travellers passing through Annapolis Royal, military officers, and officials wrote of their encounters with her. They described her carrying bags, rousing her clients to catch their boats, and disciplining local boys who might get in her way.”
Those travellers, military officials, and officials wrote about their encounters with Fortune,
“She was the subject of an anonymous watercolour from the 1830s, one of only two contemporary images of Black Loyalists,” said Parks Canada. “In the 1920s a Montréal journalist, inspired by the portrait, researched the life of Rose Fortune and her impact on Annapolis Royal, gathering living memories of Fortune that illustrate the power of her character and the impact she had in her lifetime. Her descendants have also preserved and re-told her story.”
Annapolis Royal Mayor Bill MacDonald said the national designation is appropriate.
“Rising above the challenges of her time, Rose Fortune’s determination and strength of character is truly inspiring,” said MacDonald. “I’m excited, with the recognition of Rose as a national historic person, that more Canadians will learn about this remarkable woman.”
According to Parks Canada very few complete life stories of the Black Loyalists have survived, and with the exception of Rose Fortune, none of a Black Loyalist woman.
Did you know?
Rose Fortune’s legacy in the area includes names like Burrell, Currie, Bailey, Stevenson, Francis, and Lewis – including Daurene Lewis, perhaps Canada’s most famous Black woman. Annapolis Royal’s fire chief Malcolm Francis is a descendant of Rose Fortune.