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James Russell looking for descendants of those interred in Negro Burial Ground

Marilyn and James Russell marked the graves as seen in ground-penetrating radar in the Negro Burial Ground. He continues his research to discover the names of those buried in the cemetery.
Marilyn and James Russell marked the graves as seen in ground-penetrating radar in the Negro Burial Ground. He continues his research to discover the names of those buried in the cemetery.

James Russell continues to work on unearthing the names of those interred in the Negro Burial Ground, but these days, his efforts are directed at research.

Meanwhile, he waits for approval to move forward with an archeological dig to excavate what are thought to be 19 gravestones that lie beneath the grass on the site of the Baptist meeting house, which was erected in 1831.

The deepest of the stones, says Russell, are about one and a half feet beneath the turf.

Russell met with town staff last week to discuss the next step of his project to put names to those buried in the Mississagua Street cemetery.

As the owner of the cemetery where 28 early Black settlers, as yet mostly unnamed, are thought to be buried, the town has to approve any work that goes forward, as does the Bereavement Authority of Ontario  (BAO), the administrative authority designated to enforce provincial burial regulations.

Russell is hoping the town and BAO will agree to the first step of what is being considered a three-stage project to be undertaken by ARA, the professional archeology company recommended by the BAO. The first stage is research, before any digging can occur, explains Russell.

If it is estimated to cost less than $5,000, which Russell expects it will, the town should be able to move forward without going out to tender for the work, and the first stage of the project will go to council for approval.

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

ARA describes the first stage as “comprehensive background research into the property,” accomplished through an examination of the archaeology, history, geography, and current land conditions in the vicinity of the cemetery. In addition to looking at other archaeological digs nearby, the background study includes archival sources such as historical publications and records, academic and archaeological publications, topographic maps, 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 area if it has no archaeological potential, or a stage 2 assessment be carried out.

The next stage includes 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. Further work may be recommended. If any burial features, such as grave shafts or coffin stains, are encountered, they must be fully documented and mapped.

The third stage, a conservation plan, will address best practices for the conservation of the headstones. Before headstones are removed, a temporary storage plan will outline methods to limit deterioration to the headstones, including where they will be temporarily stored and how they will be cared for in the short-term, the ARA report says.

An assessment of each headstone will be recorded to show the type and degree of deterioration of each stone, and will be used to determine appropriate strategies to ensure preservation.

The assessment will be visual; no invasive methods will be used. The conservation plan will recommend restoration and conservation measures to ensure their 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.

“I’ve always felt the Negro Burial Ground fell into this condition through benign neglect,” he says. Referencing the history of the slavery locally, in what was Upper Canada, Russell says it’s important to note the act passed in Upper Canada in 1793 only restricted slavery, gradually ending it by making it illegal to bring enslaved people into Upper Canada, and declaring children born to enslaved people would be freed, but it did not free enslaved people directly. It wasn’t until 1834 that slavery was abolished in Canada.

“Although many folks came to Niagara to escape slavery, when they got here, Canadians still owned slaves, and slavery had existed in the Niagara area for decades.”

He believes the forces at play now are positive, “and I expect this project to move forward,” he says.

In the meantime, he is carrying on with his research, hoping there may be some people, descendants of those buried in the cemetery, who might come forward with information. 

He is currently trying to track down Winifred Wesley, a descendant of John Wesley, whose stone is one that is above-ground and is readable. The stone is from 1893, and John was the last one to be buried in the cemetery, he says.

Winifred, the great-granddaughter of John, at one time worked for Greaves Jam, and lived in what is now a cottage rental on Victoria Street. Russell believed she moved from NOTL to Nova Scotia, and from there disappeared.

However, David Greaves of Greaves Jam reached out to The Local to say Winifred never left NOTL, lived in her Victoria Street home until she died, and is buried in St. Andrew's Church Cemetery. That is the kind of information Russell is hoping he can learn from people who may have some knowledge of the descendants of the Black settlers who may be interred in the Negro Burial Ground.

Russell continues to plug away through Ontario archives, stored at York University, he says, to see what else he can discover. “We are making progress. It’s slower than I would have liked, but that’s my nature."

A Toronto filmaker, Russell says he is accustomed to directing cinematography, not dealing with this level bureaucracy, but is grateful for the support and enthusiasm of those who have talked to him about the project.

One of the project supporters is George Webber, a resident of NOTL and a member of the town’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee.

Weber is enthusiastic about the project, and has offered to be the local face for fundraising to pay for the work.

He says he knows enough people who are interested in helping out that he doesn’t expect it will be a problem raising the first $5,000 privately, once the town approves it, and if the next two stages are also a go, he hopes to raise the money needed to fund them as well.

For the moment, he said, the project “is moving forward slowly and carefully. There is a process, and we have to follow the process.”

The fundraising part of it will come, but not until council, and the BAO, give their approval.