A Toronto man wants to ensure that one of the most important aspects of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s history does not remain buried and lost to time.
And he has the unanimous support of town council to make it happen.
Jim Russell is offering his time and money to perform extensive research and restoration at the Negro Burial Ground on Mississagua Street in order to identify those who are buried and to erect proper headstones for some of NOTL’s original residents.
“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them,” Russell told council Monday night, quoting Victorian writer and journalist Mary Ann Evans.
Russell is proposing to use ground-penetrating radar to identify where exactly all the bodies are located in the graveyard, a process he says would take about three hours and cost $2,000. He is offering his own money and time for the project.
After the bodies are located, Russell said he hoped the next step would be recruiting talented NOTLers to design monuments or headstones for the dead.
“I would ask the town to perhaps launch a design competition to create permanent markers,” he said.,
“I would also like to produce a short film, which follows the locating and marking process along with a five-minute monologue from a Black history expert about the history of Black folks in the Niagara Region.”
Russell, a former news photographer for the Toronto Star and current founder, writer and producer for MANKS Motion Picture Studios, said the lack of recognition for the burial ground has long been a source of frustration.
“I’ve been coming frequently (to NOTL) for the last 37 years,” Russell said.
“It has always bothered me that the field is simply an open grass area. I would hope that more respect would be given to the dead and at least an effort would be made to identify those beneath the ground.”
He said after using the ground-penetrating radar, it might be difficult to determine from municipal records, wills and other historic documents who exactly is buried in the graveyard.
“I’m not 100 per cent sure that I will be successful but I am 100 per cent sure that I will try,” he said.
Russell said he is already in communication with the NOTL Museum, the University of Toronto, the Ontario Black History Society, academics and the Baptist Church, which once owned the graveyard.
Council unanimously supported Russell’s request and directed town staff to work with him to begin ironing out details for how this sensitive operation can be carried out.
“I drive by that cemetery every day and it’s about time we did something about it,” Coun. Gary Burroughs said.