Why this Toronto man is uncovering unmarked graves of Black settlers in Niagara-on-the-Lake

For years when James Russell drove through Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., he noticed the yard with two headstones beside a small plaza on Mississauga Street.

He knew it was more than a plain patch of grass in a quiet town.

“Each time I pass, I say, really somebody needs to address this issue and finally, last November, that somebody had to be me,” Russell said.

“I think I was a little pissed off … enough was enough.”

The yard he has passed for years has been known as the Negro Burial Ground, also the site of the Niagara Baptist Church.

The church’s congregation was established in 1829 and a meeting house was built two years later, according to Ontario Heritage Trust.

The congregation was mostly full of colonists but became almost predominantly Black as enslaved people escaped the U.S. and formerly enslaved people came from Britain.

28 potential burial sites, 19 potential headstones

The church closed in 1878 but Ontario Heritage Trust said there were at least 15 burials in the churchyard.

But Russell said he potentially found 13 more — a total of 28 — using ground penetrating radar. He added he also believes there are 19 headstones.

He said the search for unmarked graves at former residential school sites inspired him to try using radar technology.

Howard Bogusat shows the map with the results from the ground-penetrating radar. The radar reportedly shows where unmarked graves and headstones sit. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The land is city property, but Russell, a Toronto resident and long-time visitor of the town, is leading the search efforts and has spent about $3,000 of his own money on the project.

“The people who are buried here have children, grandchildren, great great grandchildren who I’m sure would love to know where their ancestors are buried,” he said.

“It ought to have been done by me a long time ago,” he said.

Unearthing headstones is first step

Russell was at the burial ground on Tuesday. He set up a grid using small orange flags.

Following a map he has from the ground-penetrating radar, Russell sprayed an outline into the ground with grass-friendly paint and stuck a Canadian flag at each potential burial site.

Blue dots will represent where the reported headstones are.

Russell was also with Howard Bogusat, who was walking around the yard, dowsing to try and locate more potential unmarked graves.

A blue outline and a Canadian flag marks the potential graves at the Negro Burial Ground. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Howard Bogusat is dowsing at the burial site in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He has helped with the search for the reported unmarked graves. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Betty Disero, Lord Mayor of Niagara-on-the-Lake, was there too. She told CBC Hamilton the municipality supports Russell’s efforts and is thankful he’s taking the lead.

“It’s almost like they were waiting to be found because the tombstone is with the unmarked graves,” she said.

“We will be able to give these people the recognition and dignity they deserve.”

Russell is providing town council members with an update next week and may also ask if the municipality can help cover the costs of the search.

“I’m excited the first step has been done. The rest is going to be a long year or two years … it has to be done,” he said.

‘These people have to be given names and faces’

While any human remains found won’t be disturbed, Russell said he contacted the archeology departments at McMaster University and the University of Toronto to do more research on any headstones that are dug up.

None of the headstones are more than a foot and a half deep based on the radar scan, Russell said.

His vision is to have the headstones re-erected and cleaned as well as finding out as much as they can about the nine potential graves without headstones and giving them new headstones.

Sarah Kaufman is the managing director of the Niagara-on-the-Lake museum. She says documents point to 15 people potentially buried at the Negro Burial Ground. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Sarah Kaufman, managing director of the Niagara-on-the-Lake museum, told CBC News it can be hard to track down some of the information because Black history wasn’t always well documented, but digging up headstones will make a big difference.

She said the identity of 15 people buried there are almost certainly confirmed.

Two of them — Herbert Holmes and Jacob Green — died fighting to stop Solomon Moseby from being returned to slavery in the U.S., according to Kaufman and the Ontario Heritage Trust.

“Holmes held onto the reins and stopped the horses from moving … and Jacob Green put something in the wheels to stop it from wheeling,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman said while many people may assume Niagara-on-the-Lake is a colonial community, it’s rich with Black history and Russell’s search will add to that.

Kaufman points to some of the artifacts and documents that indicate who may be buried at the Negro Burial Ground (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

“I think it’ll help to round out the narrative of our community to give a more wholesome story about who the people were that lived here,” she said.

She hopes the museum can help people learn more about the people buried at the site.

Russell hopes his efforts will help people passing by realize the land is a sacred burial ground rather than a patch of almost empty space.

“Respecting the living has a lot to do with respecting the dead as well,” he said.

“These people have to be given names and faces.”

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.

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