Filmmaker searches for missing black graves in Canadian cemetery – Baptist News Global


James Russell is appalled by an apparent lack of commitment to preserving Black burial sites in Canada. He is so disturbed that he has taken it upon himself to ensure their dignity.

“What bothers me is that this land has no landmarks,” he said, describing a cemetery site he walks through. ‘It was just tagged’Negro‘ burial place; extremely disrespectful.

Russell is a Black Canadian filmmaker which uses ground-penetrating radar to locate the burial sites of the first black Canadians in Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario, on the border with New York.

Russell is working on a site, nearly two centuries old, where a Baptist church existed among some of the earliest black Canadian communities. It is a vital historical, cultural and religious place.

At the end of the American Revolution, mass emigration transported enslaved black people from the United States to Canada. Thousands of people settled in the province of Ontario, which was then called British North America. They brought with them their Baptist faith, which they had practiced as slaves.

In the 1800s, black Baptist churches have become important refuges in Ontario, reported Lana TalbotClerk and Heritage Coordinator for First Baptist Church in Sandwich, Ontario.

What happened to the Black Graves around the church is a mystery for the ages.

This helps explain why Russell moves his radar around the site of a long-vanished Baptist church in a quest to find black graves there. The church was founded in the 1820s by John Oakley, who came to the community in 1793 from the United States. Russell located the foundations of the church building, which became city property in 1893 and eventually became a tool shed on a farm

What happened to the Black Graves around the church is a mystery for the ages.

Many tombstones may have fallen and disintegrated into the ground, Russell theorized. But he considers other causes. “A 90-year-old man once told me that around 1950 a group of teenagers started vandalizing the cemetery, and one of the cemeteries was the black cemetery,” he explained, noting that some locals believe that the teenagers knocked down all the tombstones. .

Technicians working on site (Photo/James Russell)

“So we really don’t know what happened,” Russell said. “A few people told me that people stole the headstones and used them as driveway stones in their homes,” he added, shrugging sadly.

Russell originally asked Niagara City Council to approve site exploration and pay the $2,000 radar rental. The city did not provide the funds, but he received approval to carry out the project. Russell therefore assumed the costs himself.

During the radar work, which lasted about five hours, several people stopped to question Russell about his work.

“A resident gave me $100 on the spot, a councilman wrote me a check for $50, and another resident went into town to buy some spray paint,” he said. “We paint where the graves are in a rectangle and put a Canadian flag.”

Local Niagara museum records indicate that 10 blacks were buried in the “Negro” cemetery, but Russell found 28 bodies and 19 headstones. He is convinced that there are others.

The cemetery has been ignored for 150 years in Canada, a country that is proud to document the burial place of white heroes.

“We think the ground-penetrating radar just didn’t pick them all up because either they’re buried deeper or the ground has been disturbed,” he said.

Curiously, the cemetery has been ignored for 150 years in a country that prides itself on documenting the burial place of white heroes. However, Russell is diplomatic when asked if this indicates the systemic erasure of black Canadian identity.

“I’m going to err on the plus side,” he said. “The quick answer is nobody cared.”

Russell remains engrossed in finding who exactly is buried at the site. He wants specific details.

“I asked the Toronto Archives Registrar, the Southern Baptist League and the Ontario Archives if they had any archives,” he reported. “We have headstones, which is great, but we need the names of the people buried there so we can match them to their graves.”

In Canadaonly archaeological companies are allowed to dig cemeteries, so Russell asked for a cost estimate.

“They came back to me with a quote for $59,000,” he said. He’ll try to get the city to fund the project, but he’s realistic. “It could take a year or two to get things done,” he conceded.

As Black Baptists in Canada grappling with racial sensitivities and the erasure of black identity in Canada, Russell is unflinching about the reasons for his search for Black burial places is important, despite the heavy bill and the lack of institutional support.

“People who are buried in the Black Cemetery have grandchildren, who I’m sure would like to know where their ancestors are buried,” he explained. “It’s a matter of respect.”

Ray Mwareya is a freelance immigration journalist living in Canada.

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