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Niagara Falls
Friday, July 12, 2024
Black cemetery protest called ‘publicity stunt’ and ‘misleading’
Friends of the Forgotten committee chair George Webber stands at the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground. He believes a memorial at the burial site would be more effective than unearthing the headstones. (Somer Slobodian)

An activist’s brief hunger strike in Niagara-on-the-Lake has left some people feeling upset and misled.

Toronto resident James Russell chained himself to the plaque at the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground for more than 24 hours last Monday, vowing not to leave until the town agreed to unearth and restore the cemetery’s long-buried headstones.

However, he left Tuesday evening, citing his family’s concerns for his physical health. 

He says the town has done nothing for more than 130 years to protect and maintain the inactive cemetery on Mississagua Street near Mary Street.

This came as a shock to members of town council and the Friends of the Forgotten, a community group working with the municipality to memorialize the burial ground.

”We just have to be sure that the town understands what the Friends of the Forgotten is all about,” said George Webber, chair of the organization.

Right now, the burial ground is invisible, said Webber.

He hopes the town will take pride in the site once it is memorialized. 

Coun. Erwin Wiens noted, “We’ve been working with George Webber and the Friends of the Forgotten who have done a great job and who have been terrific partners with the town.”

“So, I don’t think it was fair to stir up a controversy that didn’t exist,” he added. 

Wiens said Russell’s controversy over the graves was “manufactured” since the wheels have been in motion at the cemetery for a few years now.

“I can’t reiterate enough on how I feel that he hasn’t treated us fairly and he misled people,” he said.

Coun. Maria Mavridis, who backed Russell last week and tried to get council to support his cause, agreed with Wiens that Russell misled people.

Mavridis said she messaged fellow councillors last week after Russell said the town was doing nothing to address the issue.

She was told the situation is a work in progress but is complicated as permission is needed from the Bereavement Authority of Ontario

She also sent messages to past council members, including former lord mayor Betty Disero.

“Betty said, ‘No, I’ve been working on it with him for a few years,’ ” Mavridis said.

As well, plans are afoot to establish a memorial on the burial ground property.

A search last year by Russell using ground penetrating radar concluded there could be 28 graves and 19 buried headstones on the site. Now, only two gravestones remain intact on the property.

Lissa Paul, a Brock University professor and member of the Friends of the Forgotten, has been working on a memorial since 2020 and was displeased with Russell’s protest.

“To position himself as the sole saviour is completely unethical,” she said. 

Paul wants to erect a sculpture at the burial ground to memorialize the African diasporic people who lived, worked and died in the region. 

She said she spoke to Russell in the summer of 2020, so “it’s not that he didn’t know that all of this work is going on.”

Wiens, Webber and Paul all labelled Russell’s protest a publicity stunt. 

When told of this, Russell responded by saying, “It was a publicity stunt to bring attention and respect back to the folks who are buried there who have been rendered anonymous.” 

Just last month, Webber represented the Friends of the Forgotten at council and asked for the town’s backing in principle — and council voted unanimously to support of the community group. 

The organization has raised more than $5,000, enough to pay for the required stage one archeological assessment at the burial site.

Russell said he respects the Friends of the Forgotten and wishes the group all the best.

However, he also has been heard telling people not to donate money to the Friends of the Forgotten.  

“He’s trying to sabotage us, for sure,” said Webber. 

Russell said the community group is “trying,” not “doing.”

“They have not accomplished anything. They have only accomplished trying,” he said. 

However, some disagree. 

NOTL Museum curator and director Sarah Kaufman was disappointed when Russell said nothing had been done at the burial site.

We have done quite a bit to draw attention to the Negro Burial Ground site,” she said.

The burial ground is listed on the Voices of Freedom memorial in Old Town, it’s in publications at the museum and the site is marked by a memorial plaque from the Ontario Heritage Trust, she said.

“It’s sort of frustrating when someone comes in from out of town saying nothing’s been done when things have been done,” she said. 

Yvonne Bredow, a NOTL resident working with Russell, said unearthing and restoring the headstones is a better option than a memorial. 

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to know all the names of all the people in there. But we need to try,” she said.

“They’re somebody’s ancestors. They fought for our country. They lived here. They fought for their freedom,” she added. 

Mavridis also believes restoring the headstones would be more fitting than a memorial.

“I would hate to go visit my mom at Victoria Lawn Cemetery and there be tourists there reading,” she said. 

Russell claims the town buried the headstones more than 30 years ago, but he could not substantiate the accusation with evidence. 

The town has stated multiple times that workers did not bury the headstones, but laid the stones down to preserve them.

Since Russell believes the town buried the headstones, he thinks it’s the town’s responsibility to restore them, not the taxpayers’. 

He said fundraising is still using taxpayers’ dollars.

However, Bredow told The Lake Report that their group, Negro Burial Ground: Restoration, also is fundraising for the project. 

“It’s not different” than what the Friends of the Forgotten are doing, she said. 

“It’s just we’re going a different route. The Friends of the Forgotten (is) mainly for this area. We are fundraising all over Canada and the U.S.,” she added.

Mavridis said even if the town had the money to pay for the restoration, the funds would still be coming from taxpayers.

And Wiens reiterated that the town can’t simply go into the cemetery and start digging – it needs the blessing of the Bereavement Authority of Ontario.

David Brazeau, a spokesperson for the Bereavement Authority, confirmed that in an email.

Because the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake does not have credible maps, records or the identity of any interment rights holders, it cannot disturb the burial site. That would be an offence,” he said. 

Because the town didn’t agree to Russell’s demands last week, he and Bredow are organizing a march in Niagara-on-the-Lake on June 18.

Russell said he plans to march from the burial ground, down Mississagua Street and finish along Queen Street.

Webber’s group believes a memorial is the best way to remember and honour the Black lives at the cemetery. 

Similar to the cenotaph on Queen Street, a memorial at the burial ground would “remember all of them, but not them individually,” he said.



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