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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Wednesday, October 5, 2022
28 graves, 19 headstones located in historic Black cemetery
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Work that started in April to locate the burial plots in the historic Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground in Old Town has already yielded some important results.

“We finally got the scan report and (radar technician Steve Watson) had a heck of a time because he found 19 buried headstones and 28 graves,” Jim Russell said in an interview on Wednesday.

Russell, who is organizing and paying for the project, said he had previously heard estimates that some 19 graves might be located in the cemetery. The cemetery's plaque has recently been renamed from the Negro Burial Ground to the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground.

But there were some concerning discoveries as a result of the ground penetrating radar work as well.

“The other thing (Watson) mentioned, which is kind of scary, is that a significant number — I think it was about seven or eight — graves butted the property line,” Russell said.

He said graves had been found that spilled over into neighbouring residential properties to the west, the property line of The Lake Report’s office and even into the paved parking lot of the plaza next door.

“He mentioned it could be that the graveyard was actually larger and that there are people buried either under the asphalt of the Subway (restaurant) or in people’s backyard. He said it was unusual for graves to be that close to a property line.”

Russell has employed NOTL historian Ron Dale to help find information about whether the property lines have shifted over the years so that the neighbouring properties now encroach on the graveyard.

The large number of buried headstones means the work Russell is doing could take a new and significant step.

He has already been in touch with an archeologist about getting the proper permits to possibly dig up the buried headstones. These could be invaluable for his overarching goal: identifying the individuals buried there.

“The question is are (the headstones) going to be readable?” Russell said.

“They’ve been maybe down there for 100 years and they’re limestone. Evidently, limestone doesn’t hold up well.”

But if they are readable, digging up the graves will reduce the number of individuals who need to be identified from 28 to nine. 

Russell said he spoke with Lord Mayor Betty Disero about the prospect of archeological work in the burial ground and that she was supportive. He will be presenting his findings and updated plans to town council on June 6, tentatively.

There were some further difficulties for the technicians when it came to analyzing the results of the radar scan.

“The topsoil has been disturbed. (Watson) was looking for columns. When you dig a grave you basically have walls and the grave goes down,” Russell said.

“But he was saying that, for some reason, whether that be landscaping or someone perhaps using the graveyard to grow crops or a garden, the topsoil — the top, say, about a foot — has been disturbed.”

“So it was difficult for him to see the images he was looking for.”

A NOTL resident has also reached out to Russell to offer to help setting up a GoFundMe page for the project. So far, Russell has paid nearly $3,000 out of his own pocket to get the work done.

Russell and his wife will be in Old Town next Tuesday laying out a grid on the burial ground so the graves can be located.

He said he is satisfied with how things are progressing and is awaiting a response from McMaster University’s Canadian Baptist Archives for help researching records that may reveal a little more about the early Black Canadians who planted their roots in Niagara-on-the-Lake.