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Niagara-on-the-Lake
Monday, September 26, 2022
Archeological company offers to dig up buried headstones in historic black cemetery
Jim Russell, dressed as always in business casual with knee pads, cuts the grass by hand around the Canadian flags he has installed at the Negro Burial Ground on Mississauga Street with his wife Marilyn Russell. An archaelogical company has submitted an assessment to dig up the buried headstones in the cemetery for $59,000.
Jim Russell, dressed as always in business casual with knee pads, cuts the grass by hand around the Canadian flags he has installed at the Negro Burial Ground on Mississauga Street with his wife Marilyn Russell. An archaelogical company has submitted an assessment to dig up the buried headstones in the cemetery for $59,000. Evan Saunders

Jim and Marilyn Russell have done a lot of work in the Negro Burial Ground in Niagara-in-the-Lake over the last two months — but there’s still a long way to go.

Russell was recently sent an email by the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake asking him to desist from any further action at the graveyard until he had consulted with the Bereavement Authority of Ontario about work on the site.

He did that, and quickly had the authority support his initiative and recommend an archeological company, licensed by the province, to do further work on the site.

Archaeological Research Associates Ltd. have submitted a proposal to do the work at the site for $59,000. The proposal involves research, excavation and a detailed conservation plan.

But Russell says what happens next is, to a degree, out of his hands. He gave the assessment to Kevin Turcotte, NOTL’s manager of parks and recreation.

Russell says his expectation is for Turcotte to “submit the proposal to the town to find the money to approve the proposal and to find the money — the $59,000 — the archeological company is going to need to unearth the 19 buried headstones.”

Since the town is the landowner it must also initiate further work on the cemetery through the bereavement authority, an email from Turcotte to Russell said.

Russell said the archaeological team was happy the ground penetrating radar had already been conducted.

“They are confident they can find the headstones. Now, they may be a foot off, one way or the other. What they basically do is determine an area and then start removing soil inch by inch until they actually reach the headstone.”

“It’s Indiana Jones stuff,” Russell said with a laugh.

In handing off the assessment to the town, Russell is getting ready to settle into his two new duties regarding the site.

“Maintenance and research,” he said.

Russell was in NOTL on June 28 to replace the Canadian flags he had initially installed at the site with sturdier versions.

Many of the flags Russell and Marilyn had installed in May have been torn or destroyed during the wind and rain storms that have frequented Niagara-on-the-Lake in the past few weeks.

Russell was a sight to behold on the 28th. Dressed business casual, in a sharp white dress shirt with pants fit for a tuxedo and fitted with knee pads, he was kneeling in the cemetery cutting the grass around the flags by hand and fitting in the new ones.

And throughout all the various Ontario spring weather that has been thrown at Russell since he began working at the site in May, there has been one constant — Marilyn.

“I couldn’t have done this without her,” Russell said.

Marilyn has been with Russell at the cemetery every time he is there. She has helped him in virtually every aspect of the project, from laying out a grid to locate the graves and headstones, installing the flags and hand cutting the grass, since it began and is often the only person lending Russell a hand.

The research side of things could, unfortunately, be going a little better.

Russell had previously reached out to McMaster University’s Canadian Baptist Archives to try and find any documents they had relating to the Baptist church that once stood on the cemetery grounds.

“They completely threw up their hands. They have no records of a Baptist Church being here,” Russell said.

“Evidently, this Baptist church was not part of their enclave.”

“It was what they call a, a, uh—“

“A fellowship,” Marilyn handily chimed in.

“That’s right, a fellowship. So they have no records,” said Russell.

Russell also reached out to the University of Toronto for help researching the church.

“They, in turn, recommended McMaster.”

He has even been in communication with a Baptist group in Georgia in the United States.

“They have no record of a baptist church here either. So, someone just established a Baptist church here.”

In the meantime, Russell will pursue other avenues of research as he waits for the archeological assessment to make its way through town staff.

Archaeological Research Associates Ltd. have drafted a three part plan at the site for $59,000.

Stage 1 involves extensive background research on the surrounding area. Stage 2 would see the technicians from the company actually work to uncover the buried headstones.

It is estimated that there are 19 buried headstones in the cemetery, based on ground penetrating radar performed by Global GPR Solutions Inc. in May.

Archaeological Research Associates was recommended to Russell by the Bereavement Authority. The company is the oldest archeological and heritage consulting firm in the province, according to the assessment.

Uncovering the headstones would require a myriad of important oversight rules laid out in various pieces of legislation. Any materials uncovered will be subject to extensive testing and cataloguing.

The headstones would be kept in a safe storage area while all of the necessary tests are performed and their state of deterioration assessed.

The company also proposes to create a detailed conservation plan for how to best preserve the headstones and the cemetery.