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Sunday, June 26, 2022
‘Long overdue’ work to identify Black Canadians buried in NOTL seeks historic information from residents 
James Russell tries to map out a grid of the Negro Burial Ground while Lezlie Harper and James' wife Marilyn talk in the background.
James Russell tries to map out a grid of the Negro Burial Ground while Lezlie Harper and James' wife Marilyn talk in the background. Evan Saunders

Jim and Marilyn Russell braved the sun and rain last week to continue the process of marking and identifying the graves of those buried in the historic former Negro Burial Ground in Old Town.

But Russell is asking for the help of Niagara-on-the-Lake residents, whose knowledge of the history of the burial ground could be invaluable in the project the Toronto resident is funding himself.

Russell and The Lake Report have heard from some locals that headstones were removed from the graveyard in decades long past and incorporated into buildings around town.

“We’re hoping publicity will encourage people who find or have inherited houses where the headstones are in people’s walkways or even fireplaces or simply just in the foundations to come forward,” Russell said in an interview.

The best-case scenario is that many of the headstones buried in the graveyard will be legible if they are dug up, he said.

If that is the case, “we still have eight to find,” he said.

“And they must be somewhere nearby because no one’s going to take a 100-pound headstone and drive to Montreal.”

Russell said there is no judgment at all attached to any buildings around town that have headstones included in their structure. He would simply be thrilled to locate them.

Publicity has been ramping up for the project over the last few weeks and last Tuesday Russell did several interviews for television and radio.

“Maybe this will encourage other people to do the same thing in other graveyards and unmarked graveyards,” he said.

Russell and his wife worked long hours to lay out a grid in the burial ground and mark the locations of graves and headstones with Canadian flags.

But they were not entirely alone. They had support from lifelong NOTLer Howard Bogusat and Lezlie Harper, who runs Niagara Bound Tours.

“I am very excited,” Harper said, celebrating Russell’s initiative to take on the project.

“It’s like divine intervention, something came in this man’s heart and soul to do this work that has needed to be done for so long,” she said.

Harper shared the sentiment that this work can motivate more.

“I think this is going to be the catalyst to other work. There’ll be others. There’s a cemetery in Fort Erie that needs to be looked at. Maybe this is the catalyst to bring Black history to the surface.”

While Harper champions Russell for taking the steps to do this work, Russell was a little harder on himself.

“I should have done it 37 years ago. I only have myself to blame,” said Russell, who is in his 70s.

“Passing by here for the past 37 years I just reached a point where I realized nobody’s going to do this unless I do it myself.”

“It’s long overdue and long overdue to give the people who are buried here the respect that they deserve.”

“There’s really no point in waiting for someone else to get off their butt and do something. Citizens have to take this kind of thing into their own hands,” he said.

Russell said archeologists associated with McMaster University are interested in helping him explore the possibility of unearthing the buried headstones.

So far, Russell has spent at least $3,000 of his own money on the project.

One person stopped last Tuesday and donated $100 to the endeavour, the first and only donation Russell has so far received. He said he was embarrassed to take the money and hopes the town is willing to help out.

Bogusat, who donated a lot of his time to help Russell lay out the plots, also bought spray paint for the project.

Anyone wanting to support Russell’s work can contact him via email at jmr@manks-productions.com or reach out to him via his Facebook page dedicated to the project, Negro Burial Ground: Restoration.