UNB Alumni
Telling our #ProudlyUNB stories

A second career uncovering and retelling history in Atlantic Canada

Author: UNB Alumni

Posted on Feb 14, 2023

Category: UNB Fredericton , Engineering , Inspiring Stories

Graham Nickerson photo courtesy of CBC

Graham Nickerson (MScEng’02, MA’22) is passionate about researching untold Black history in the Maritimes and hopes that one day, “Black history will simply be history.”

Nickerson, a native of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, came to UNB for a master’s degree in survey engineering and geology after having graduated from Saint Mary’s University in the same field. After graduating, he worked for many years doing marine surveying and helping to design several industry-leading software applications. “I’ve worked in marine science in some form or other since 1991- for companies and as a contractor in my own business.”  

Graham founded an ocean mapping company that uses high-tech survey equipment and custom-designed software to do a variety of client work around the world – from mapping debris after Hurricane Katrina, river channel mapping in the United States to recover chemical contaminants, oil and gas exploration off the Angolan coast to undersea mapping for cable routes in the shadow of Japanese volcanoes. But around 2008, as he was working for a client exploring ancient ship wreaks off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean, archeology and history began to capture him.

“I was intrigued, and history began taking up an increasing amount of space in my life. It became a passion. It’s so interesting to understand who is telling the story and how much evidence do they have? I started to look at my own genealogical history and then began reading more to get an understanding of what was going on at a deeper level.”

As he met others doing this kind of research, he was encouraged to pursue a degree to have his own research recognized. He decided to return to UNB and graduated with a master’s degree in history in 2022. He’s already begun working toward a PhD. “There is so much work in Black history that hasn’t been done yet. The human experience is almost infinite, and there are a lot of stories to tell.”  

Nickerson is focusing on researching Black history in the Maritimes through three primary regions in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. “We’ve been invested in a colonial fairytale of our past, but our real history is far more interesting and makes us an important part of the world. We’re not insular to the rest of world history here in the Maritimes.”

As an example, he cites the story of Nancy, the plaintiff in the 1800 trial often referred to as the “Nancy trial” that challenged the validity of slavery in New Brunswick. “Nancy’s case was not unique in the world, but one in a long tradition of Black petitions for freedom and for an acknowledgement that natural rights applied to all people, including those of African descent. This practice of petitioning led back into Nova Scotia, the Thirteen Colonies, the Caribbean, and ultimately to Black fugitive James Somerset who challenged the validity of his enslavement in the 1772 Somerset case in Great Britain. The Somerset v Stewart case launched Granville Sharp’s career as the leading abolitionist in Britain, and would see his proteges credited with the establishment of the Black settlement in Sierra Leone.”                                       

“What remains little recognized is the earliest work organizing the Black émigrés and the tireless petitioning of the British government by Black Loyalist Thomas Peters, who travelled between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and England. Equally neglected are the New Brunswick religious leaders like Methodist Henry Beverhout and sometime New Brunswick resident David George. George is virtually unknown outside of the Black community, but was a founding father of the Baptist Church in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, established the first African Baptist Church in the United States, and founded the Baptist Church in Sierra Leone.”

Nickerson excitedly mentions other research as well, such as a 1783 document that tells of a temporary encampment in St. Stephen of several hundred Black evacuees from New York City who arrived in November 1783 – making them among the last to leave the city before the Americans took over. And another story, about the Disney Chapel in Yarmouth built in 1870 by Bishop Disney, an African Methodist Episcopal Church minster originally from Maryland but who came to southern Ontario to help Blacks escaping slavery from the United States. And another, this one about a man named George Braxton in St. Andrews. During the nineteenth century, Braxton migrated from Virginia to the Boston area, where he cooked at Wellesley College before receiving chef training in Paris. By 1896, Braxton had attained the position of head chef at the prestigious Algonquin Resort, likely the first Black head chef in Canada. Braxton also published a cookbook making him one of the first Blacks to do so in Canada.

“Finding that hidden history and tying it all together with how people moved around and moved through the system – it changes our views and understanding of our world today and how we got here. We’ve lived here together for centuries and all of us have contributed to society. Recasting the Western narrative to include all aspects of slavery and emancipation will create a societal awareness that can better interpret the context surrounding New Brunswick’s historic and current Black communities. The Black community is integral to the ebb and flow of Canadian and Atlantic world history.”

To that end, Nickerson is a strong advocate for New Brunswick celebrating Emancipation Day on August 1st. “We need to meaningfully acknowledge our Black ancestors and how much our society relied on that economic engine of slavery. Emancipation Day must be celebrated. Black history matters!”

In case you thought Nickerson spends all his time with his head in archival records, think again – he’s also the Community Inclusion Liaison for the City of Fredericton. “The move into social inclusion was not a tough one to make. It’s meaningful work building networks, helping coordinate between organizations and building a repository of knowledge.”

His passion and commitment to both history and society today is admirable – and will certainly make a difference in the way our history will be told in the future.