To ensure authenticity, new plaques planned for two famous sites
Niagara-on-the-Lake’s important history as an early settlement for Black Canadians is getting renewed focus as the Ontario Heritage Trust installs updated plaques at the former Negro Burial Ground on Mississauga Street and at the one-time site of the Court House and Gaol near Rye Heritage Park.
“We want to tell more authentic stories of Ontario’s history on these plaques,” Erin Semande, provincial heritage registrar with the trust, said in an interview Tuesday.
Part of the organization’s current work is updating some of the older plaques in the province, which were less informed at the time of their creation than Canadians and academics are today, Semande said.
For example, the Negro Burial Ground has been renamed the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground. The Court House plaque will be retitled as the Solomon Moseby Affair 1837.
“They use language we wouldn’t use anymore. They’re narrow in the scope of their historical narrative,” said Semande.
Providing a more thoroughly researched plaque was essential for the trust, which worked closely with academics on ensuring authenticity in how the history is told to the world.
“Some of those stories, you know, they do misrepresent the past and that can be harmful to individuals and communities across the province," she said.
The trust worked closely with Natasha Henry, an author, scholar and president of the Ontario Black History Society, in researching and documenting the history of the two specific sites in Niagara-on-the-Lake, as well as two other spots near London, Ont.
“This is something we take very seriously,” Semande said.
Henry authored two extremely informative and in-depth research papers about the two NOTL sites. The papers can be read in their entirety by searching for the Ontario Heritage Trust provincial plaque background papers, under the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground and the Solomon Moseby Affair 1837.
The trust views its plaques as an essential tool for educating people on Ontario’s history.
“These plaques are landmarks and they are located in every single region of the province and they are there to educate. They are there to raise awareness about our heritage,” Semande said.
Updating historical plaques should be a fluid process for the trust, as understanding and researching abilities about Canada’s history are always improving, she said. That process, however, starts with acknowledging earlier failings.
“We’re acknowledging that they have flaws and that our understanding of Ontario’s past has broadened,” Semande said.
“We are working with local and community partners to ensure that these plaques tell an authentic, respectful, inclusive and accurate portrayal of Ontario's history.”
Four plaques have been announced so far, including the two in NOTL but Semande said these are the beginning of what will be years of reworking the trust’s many plaques across the province.
“History is very complex and it’s evolving and the way we interpret our past is always evolving.”
The new plaque at the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground, and Henry's research, documents its founding in 1829 by John Oakley, a white former British soldier who became a minister, to its flourishing in the 1850s as a predominantly Black Canadian church before its decline in 1878.
In her paper, Henry provides the names of all the people known to be buried in the graveyard.
Two of them, Herbert Holmes and Jacob Greene, were killed during the Solomon Moseby Affair, the subject of the plaque near Rye Heritage Park.
In 1837, Solomon Moseby, a Black freedom seeker from the United States, found refuge in Niagara. His enslaver tried to have Moseby extradited back to the U.S. for stealing a horse, according to Henry’s research.
An extradition order was approved but some 200 Black residents protested and camped outside the jail where Moseby was held. Many people saw the charge of horse theft as a pretext to bring Moseby back into slavery, including his laweyer, Alexander Stewart.
"(Stewart) went on to say that it was 'preposterous' to believe that four men would incur $400 (the equivalent of about $12,500 today) or more in expenses, and travel 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) for a $150 horse," according to Henry.
Some 117 white residents of Niagara also signed a petition protesting Moseby's extradition.
"Should he be given up, he will inevitably go back to slavery, there to be tortured as an example," Henry writes that the letter said.
The Black protesters' intentions were to raise enough money to pay for the horse that Moseby was alleged to have stolen and buy his freedom.
But violence ensued. Holmes and Greene were killed and buried in the Baptist Church Burial Ground. Moseby escaped and fled to England, later to return and live in Niagara, Henry writes.
“For African Canadians, this was not simply about justice for one man. If Moseby’s enslaver had succeeded, they could all be vulnerable to extradition and re-enslavement. This incident helped to establish Canadian extradition and refugee policies that are still used today,” the new plaque reads.
The area known as the Coloured Village was where most of Niagara’s Black residents lived. It was located south of William Street between Butler and King streets, Henry writes.
Henry’s research also found that, while the Black population in Niagara flourished as a location for freedom in the post-1830s, many Black residents were originally brought to the area as slaves in the late 1700s.
The plaques are not installed yet but can be read on the Ontario Heritage Trust's website. Semande said they should be erected in early summer after the old plaques have been removed.