featured Poverty Racism

John Kellum, Black and poor in 19th century Halifax

Sketch of John Kellum of Halifax. Artist Unknown

Author and Professor Judith Fingard writes of John Kellum and his family in her book The Dark Side of Life in Victorian Halifax, published by Pottersfield Press in 1991. I have at least two dog-eared copies of this book in my personal collection as I read and re-read this wonderful book for research.

John Kellum, a ‘master’ whitewasher in Halifax was born approximately 1839. I am highlighting him for African Heritage Month not just because he was African Nova Scotian and was poor but also because John Kellum gave us a stark demonstration of how poor people lived and attempted to survive in Halifax during his life time.

Fingard writes: For the Kellums (Charles, John, Charles Jr., Henry, Mary and Martha) and their associates ‘crime’ was a rational strategy for survival in a society where blacks were not accorded equal opportunity. p. 78

John Kellum would have had seasonal work as a whitewasher as Nova Scotia’s harsh and wet winters was not a time for such work. Kellum did as much alternate work as he could find, even subjecting himself as a head to be used as a target for people to aim balls at him, three throws for five cents when a travelling circus was in the city. Kellum was injured and possibly had a fractured collar bone as a result. Finding work, however, for a Black man in Victorian Halifax was not easy.

The Kellums, like other families in poverty in Halifax, used the Halifax Poors Aslyum and the Rockhead jail as their own cobbled system of a social safety net. As Fingard writes:

They drew on the city’s welfare services for the sustenance, accomodation and clothing essential to their existence. In November of that same year (1889) Henry Kellum and (Andy) Fletcher sought admission to the poorhouse explicitly for the purpose of securing suits of clothing after which they scaled the fence and ran away, only to be picked up and sentenced to six months for vagrancy and theft. – P. 85 of The Dark Side of Life in Victorian Halifax

Henry and Andy would have been stealing the uniform an inmate gets when the person enters the poor house. Their old clothes would have been taken away and likely burned as they were so dirty and full of louse from living in rough poverty and worn for months, perhaps years, at a time. It should be noted that the uniform of the poor house would have been made as cheaply as possible with cheap textiles. For a poor house uniform to be an upgrade in clothing, their own clothing must have been in tatters and rags.

John Kellum, who is pictured in the sketch below, often used the jail and poor house to survive the harsh Nova Scotia winters. Sometimes he would voluntarily hand himself over to the Halifax Police and ask to be put in jail; other times he deliberately committed a petty crime to be taken to jail.

By the late 1870s, though only in his thirties, (John) Kellum’s ability to survive in the hostile envirnoment waned and he frequently sought out the prison as a refuge...Since escape from prison was relatively easy, the fact that John Kellum never fled is some indication of his preference for the prison over the hostile world outside. p. 79-80

There appears also a preference to Rockhead prison over the Halifax Poor House as with the prison, one could get out after their sentence was completed. According to Fingard, John Kellum used the poor house when he could not get himself into Rockhead.

John Kellum died in 1900 in the poor house, collapsing in the stone breaking yard when in his sixties.

Canadian Biography has also written a wonderful piece about John Kellum. You can access it HERE. Many thanks to Judith Fingard for documenting the life of John Kellum.

Brenda Thompson is the author of A wholesome Horror, Poor Houses in Nova Scotia. ISBN 978-0-9868733-5-5. Available at a few selected bookstores, public libraries, and through the publisher. Her latest book is Finding Fortune, documenting and imagining the life of Rose Fortune. Check out her blog Poor houses in Nova Scotia.


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