David Divine hasn’t let his past, or a horrific accident, define him or his future
By Suzanne Rent
Photography by Bruce Jollimore
David Divine had just finished a workout at the gym. It was 7 a.m. on March 7, 2007 and the long-distance runner was training for the Great Wall of China Marathon, one of the toughest races in the world.
He was walking on the sidewalk, taking his usual route home, when an out-of-control car slammed into him. He never saw it coming.
Divine slipped into a coma. The prognosis was bleak for the then 53-year-old. The only thing that saved a direct impact on his chest was a backpack, a portion of which acted like an airbag.
“The expectation was I wouldn’t survive,” Divine says. “What could have been broken was broken.”
He defied those expectations, remaining in the hospital for just three months. He left the hospital in a wheelchair with significant recovery still ahead of him.
Divine arrived in Halifax three years before, after accepting the role as the prestigious James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University.
He had long connections to Canada, attending conferences as the keynote speaker. He had his own consulting business and worked on several research topics, including those connected to social justice. He had a background in social work in the U.K. in senior administration. In three years, he amassed $3 million in grants for his work.
But in 2009, Divine retired from the position. Dalhousie wanted to keep him in the role, but Divine says he and his surgeons still didn’t know how much longer the road to recovery would take.
A year later, Divine was stronger and felt ready to travel. His accident had spurred him to research his own background. It was a search he had started years before, and one that inspired a book, but this search would take him on a surprising journey.
Divine was born in Scotland. His mother was white and Scottish, his father, a black man from the American Air Corps, which had a base nearby. His mother gave him up to the state when he was three months old.
“There was no possibility of you having a black child in this community,” he says. “It was constantly reminding everybody of the misbehaviour of one of the community members. And, of course, the family was very close knit and were not going to have this.”
Divine was sent to the Princess Margaret Nursery in Edinburgh. Officials searched for a long-term home for him. When he was 18-months-old, he went to Aberlour Orphanage in the Highlands. The orphanage was a series of houses, with the children separated by age and sex. Many were there because of poverty or death in the family.
“What I loved about the orphanage is I genuinely felt loved and cared for,” he says.
The child-rearing philosophy of Aberlour Orphanage was radical for its time. Rev. Canon Charles Jupp founded it in 1875. Divine says the goal was to rebuild the children who found themselves there because of stigma and negative circumstances.
Divine remembers his housemother, Aunt Phylis, who took care of 29 children. “We all thought she was there for us, of course,” he says. “Us as individuals, not us as a collective.”
He considers many of the other boys from the orphanage his brothers. “We created family amongst ourselves,” he says. “As young as we were, we knew we were on our own. And we have to make connections with each other because we all have one thing in common. We are all in the same boat. My family who I grew up with, I loved them and they loved me. We made enduring relationships, many of which have lasted for decades.”
He remains in contact with headmistress, Miss Heap. She still remembers him and gave him photos of his time at Aberlour. The orphanage closed in 1967. By then, Divine was three years into foster care.
He wanted to know more about his family. In 1984 in London, he married his wife, Ann. There were 500 guests. Divine knew only 15 of them.
“That didn’t bother me, but it prompted me to put a little bit of effort toward finding, if I could, more family,” he says.
He met his mother twice, both meetings arranged by a sister, Suzanne, who was raised by an aunt in the town where his mother lived. She had contact with their mother.
Divine’s first meeting with his mother was brief and silent. He says she was in the back garden reading. Divine says she put her head down, looked at some photos they brought, and said nothing.
Years later, a second meeting happened in his mother’s house. Divine, with his three children all under the age of five in tow, sat next to his mother, but she said nothing and didn’t reach out to the children. Divine gathered up his children and placed them in her lap, one by one. He took photos. As in the first meeting, she said nothing.
“That was the last time I saw my mother,” he says. “That was it.”
Divine researched and wrote about his life and the lives of others who grew up in Aberlour Orphanage in a series of books. “It was hugely moving,” he says. “I never cried so much as during the two years of interviewing for that.”
During his recovery from the accident in 2007, Divine decided to continue researching his past. The accident had changed his perspective. “I said to myself I really must deal with my father, in the sense of finding him,” he says. “I thought it was a lost cause because no one was giving me any information. What changed for me was I needed to write the story. I didn’t want some stranger writing about my life for my children to read when they have nothing from their own father to compare it with.”
But first, he wanted to see his mother’s grave. He travelled to Ireland where she spent the final years of her life.
Divine had just left crutches, and could walk with a cane. His two sons insisted they travel with him. In Ireland, they found the graveyard where his mother was buried. They spent half a day walking up and down the hills of cemetery, finding her headstone in the second last row. Her photo was on the headstone. An inscription described her as a loving wife, and listed the names of a few children, but not Divine.
He took a photo of the gravesite. “It was a revelation,” he says. “We had achieved something.”
The search for his father was next. All he had was a name, one document from Aberlour, and the knowledge his father was in the American Air Force. He contacted his lawyers in London. They contacted private investigators.
Within weeks, Divine learned there was a family in South Carolina that was his. His father had passed, but the family wanted to learn more about Divine. DNA testing via the male line proved with 99.9 per cent certainty Divine belonged to this family. He flew to South Carolina to meet them. It was a large gathering, some had travelled to meet this new family member.
“I felt very, very happy,” he says. “It was genuine warmth. You could feel it.”
He learned more about his father. He had been a successful airman. He was married, but Divine’s stepmother died about a month before he headed to South Carolina. He had four daughters and one son. His father was a handsome man, he was told, and quite the character. Divine says his distinctive mouth is a family trait; he’s seen in it his family in South Carolina and now in his grandchildren.
The family also has direct connections to slavery in South Carolina. They still have the surname of slave owner William Gist, was governor of the state from 1858 to 1860 and one of the instigators of the secession movement that led to the Civil War.
“I think the family that really has struck me and continue to be a very, very strong part of my life and my children’s lives and my grandchildren’s lives, will be my newfound family in South Carolina,” he says.
Divine spent 10 years trying to get his records from Aberlour Orphanage. When he finally got them, there were notes from a social worker who was trying to arrange a meeting between Divine and his sister. But Suzanne’s aunt disapproved. She told the social worker residents in the community would think Suzanne had a black boyfriend. The aunt denied the visit.
“It all became crystal clear,” Divine says. “What I suspected was actually there in print.”
Divine is working on his autobiography, focusing on the next generation. His two sons have met his family in South Carolina. He plans on bringing his grandchildren to Aberlour. He has five of them, the eldest is six and the youngest is a year old. There is one on the way this year.
“For someone who… has a wedding with 500-plus guests and knew only 15 of them, and now I have a new side to the family emerging, which has as many family members as the wedding,” he says.
He sees the strength of nurturing, how the positive influence of the family at the orphanage shaped his life. And he sees how the Highlands have inspired his love of nature, quietness, and solitude. When he visits Scotland now, he travels the countryside and smiles.
“My perseverance, my resilience, all comes from Aberlour,” he says. “That’s not to say there haven’t been difficult periods in my life. I was certainly unhappy for periods at Aberlour… But it’s what you do with it. I’ve made sure in my life that I’m not going to be emasculated by my past. It’s not going to happen.”