Abandoned Ontario cemetery with black settler graves to restore after local defenders campaign

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An abandoned cemetery southeast of Hamilton, which is the final resting place of black settlers, including the niece of a famous anti-slavery icon, will soon be restored thanks to local volunteers and county councilors.

People who escaped slavery in the United States are buried in Street-Barnes Cemetery, nestled in a grove of trees in the middle of a field. No one has been buried there since the 1940s, and the 500-square-meter site is now littered with overturned gravestones, poorly maintained brush, dead trees, and tangles of old fence wire.

Sylvia Weaver, a local historian and author, says at least a dozen people are buried in the cemetery, which is near Canfield in Haldimand County, including Carrie Barnes, whose famous aunt Harriet Tubman helped out slaves to escape to Canada via the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.

Rosemary Sadlier, a Toronto-based historian and past president of the Ontario Black History Society, says rehabilitation work can’t come soon enough.

“Often, unfortunately, because of racism, because of ignorance, because of migration, the presence of people of African descent in some communities is completely erased,” she said, noting that cemeteries ” often provide the only tangible proof of their life there “. .. of a black colony. “

Sylvia Weaver, a local author, worked to persuade Haldimand County to erect a memorial to the area’s black settlers in 2018. (Mike Smee / CBC)

“This is the history of Canada”

Aileen Duncan, a native of Hamilton and descendant of the Street family, who gave the cemetery its name, said it was a “thrill” for her to see the names of her great-great-grandparents on the site.

“It left me speechless,” she said.

Headstones are smashed in the historic Street-Barnes Cemetery, which will soon receive a $ 100,000 facelift. (Chris Mulligan / CBC)

Only eight headstones are still visible, but Duncan says it’s important that everyone can visit the site, not just those whose loved ones are buried there.

“It’s not just for my family or the other descendants … It’s Canadian history.”

But, for the moment, the site is not accessible to the public.

Duncan, who uses a walker, must obtain permission before he can visit the graves of his ancestors, as the cemetery is on private land and is inaccessible to the public from the nearest road. The current landowner allows Duncan to enter the site using her driveway because she has promised not to hold him responsible for potential injuries.

Budget of $ 100,000 set for rehabilitation

Duncan, Weaver, and Graeme Bachiu, a local filmmaker, have been advocating for the restoration of the cemetery for several years and it looks like they’re finally getting some momentum.

Com. John Metcalfe, who sits on Haldimand County Council and its Heritage Board, says Haldimand is in the process of acquiring the cemetery and has budgeted around $ 100,000 for its rehabilitation.

Haldimand County Council. John Metcalfe helped organize the campaign to reclaim and rehabilitate Street-Barnes Cemetery. (Mike Smee / CBC)

Metcalfe says he wants to clean up “leaning trees, debris on the ground … just making it safe” for people to enter the site.

“But we have to have ownership of the property, that’s what we’re working on right now,” he said.

According to the Ontario Cemeteries Act, private landowners whose properties include abandoned cemeteries must keep them well maintained. If they choose not to do so, the local municipality can take them back without payment, provided that the municipal council agrees to keep the land in good condition.

Haldimand County has made that promise and the land is about to be transferred to County care.

The gravestone of Carrie Barnes, a niece of Harriet Tubman, is one of only eight visible in Street-Barnes Cemetery. (Chris Mulligan / CBC)

Metcalfe says that after the cleanup, the county would like to see a committee of descendants and local historians decide which memorials should be placed at the site.

Duncan already has plenty of ideas.

“I would like to see the stones come back to life. I would like to see grass on the ground and benches for people to come in and sit down. We could have a little garden with flowers and things like that here. All I can think of is the quiet here. ”

But first, another roadblock must be removed: access to the site.

Carrie Barnes on her wedding day in Welland, Ontario, in 1891. (Sylvia Tisserand)

This means persuading an adjacent landowner, as well as the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, to cede enough land to the county to build a path or road leading to the cemetery from the highway, about 500 yards away.

Metcalfe says lawyers for everyone involved are working on the easement and he expects the cleanup to begin in the spring.

“A feeling of reverence”

Spencer Martin, another descendant of those buried in the cemetery, says entering the cemetery evokes “a sense of respect for what people went through to get here. And it is the story of every immigrant that came to this country to escape adversity “.

Bachiu, the local filmmaker, spent years researching the cemetery and recounting its story in his series Canfield Roots.

“The fabric of Canadian society is made up of all different types of ethnicities and genders,” he said.

“When we begin to recognize that there were historical freedom seekers [who were] settlers in rural areas like this … so we learn more about ourselves as a people, we learn more about ourselves as a society. “

For more stories about the experiences of black Canadians – from anti-black racism to success stories within the black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(SRC)


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