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Fundraising begins for Negro Burial Ground project

James Russell will begin laying new flags Friday, replacing those at the Negro Burial Ground which have become faded. James Russell will be spending a month in Niagara-on-the-Lake, arriving this Friday with his wife Marilyn.
James Russell will begin laying new flags Friday, replacing those at the Negro Burial Ground which have become faded.

James Russell will be spending a month in Niagara-on-the-Lake, arriving this Friday with his wife Marilyn.

The Toronto man will be continuing his research to discover the names of those interred in the Negro Burial Ground, and to replace the uprooted and faded flags he placed on the graves found through the use of ground-penetrating radar earlier this year.

Russell says his next research challenge will be to visit the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum, and to go to the NOTL Library to study newspapers from the 1950s and 60s.

And while he is doing that, a fundraising steering committee, led by George Webber and Niki Walker, is planning their next steps, hoping to raise $150,000 to pay for the long-term project, the first phase of which is $5,000 for a Kitchener company, ARA, to conduct the research needed before any digging can begin.

Russell is hoping for approval for an archeological dig to excavate what are thought to be 18 gravestones that lie beneath the grass on the Mississagua Street site
of where once stood a Baptist meeting house, 
established in 1830. But first, he needs to have the funding in place.

He has been working with the town — the owner of the cemetery property — on what is expected to be a three-stage project to be undertaken by ARA, explains Russell. He was told by the town that if the estimated cost for the research stage is less than $5,000, it should be able to move forward without having to go out to tender for the work, and could go directly to council for approval.

ARA’s first quote came in at $5,900, he told The Local, but then the archeological company “was kind enough” to lower their cost to $5,000 to meet the town’s threshold.

However, the town will not give the okay to proceed with the research until the fundraising committee has raised $5,000 to cover the cost, says Russell — he was told by acting operations director Kevin Turcotte “no funds are available in the town’s operating budget.”

The entire project, which would include the research, the archeological dig and a conservation plan, is estimated at about $60,000.

The fundraising steering committee also includes Sarah Kaufman, Jamie and Betty Knight, Keira Sangster, Cheryl Morris and Russell.

The committee is hoping to raise $150,000. In addition to paying for the work of ARA, it would fund a specialist to restore and remount the headstones, purchase new headstones if necessary, hire a landscape architect to configure the NBG to make it more accessible and improve its look, and create educational material and programs that speak to the lives of NOTL’s black settlers.

Webber and Russell are planning on speaking to NOTL Rotarians at their next meeting about the burial ground, hoping for support for their project,” financial and otherwise,” says Webber.

The town has set up a dedicated account for people to donate to the project and receive a tax receipt, Webber explains.

“We don’t want to ask the town for money. We want to raise it ourselves.”

He doesn’t see any problem with raising the first $5,000 quickly, he adds.

The project is long-term, he says, and includes a vision of linking the cemetery with the Voices of Freedom Park. He has already been in touch with Tom Ridout, the designer of that park, who is excited about adding some of its elements to the Negro Burial Ground cemetery.

“It will be costly, but that is our vision for the burial ground,” says Webber.

A report prepared for the town by ARA describes the first stage of their work as “comprehensive background research into the property,” through an examination of the archaeology, history, geography, and current land conditions nearby.

In addition to looking at other archaeological digs in the area, their research includes archival sources such as historical publications and records, current academic and archaeological publications, modern topographic maps, recent satellite imagery, historical maps and atlases, and the Ontario Archaeological Sites database.

The results of ARA’s background research will form its recommendations — either that no further work be done in the areas if it has no archaeological potential, or a Stage 2 assessment be carried out.

The next stage includes an archaeological assessment, conducting hand excavation in the location of each headstone, which will be extracted and retained for laboratory analysis and conditions assessment. Following analysis, a recommendation will be made as to the cultural heritage value or interest of any identified sites, and further work may at that stage may be recommended.

The third stage will address conservation of the headstones. Before headstones are removed, a temporary storage plan will outline methods to limit deterioration in the short-term. An assessment of each headstone will be recorded to show the type and degree of deterioration, and will be used to determine appropriate strategies to ensure preservation, the ARA report says.

Although agreeing to the first stage doesn’t guarantee the work will proceed to excavation, Russell is hopeful it will, and says the work of ARA, if approved by
council, will likely begin in the spring.

Anyone interested in making a donation should call the town at 905-468-3266.