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Wednesday, October 5, 2022
Group raising $150K for old burial ground restoration project
George Webber kneels next to the grave of George Wesley at the Niagara Baptist Church
Burial Ground, historically known as the Negro Burial Ground.
George Webber kneels next to the grave of George Wesley at the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground, historically known as the Negro Burial Ground. Somer Slobodian

Fundraising efforts have begun for a major restoration project at the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

James and Marilyn Russell began the restoration project last year after seeing how little is known about the site, historically known as the Negro Burial Ground, and also how little has been done to preserve it.

The Russells, with help from NOTL residents, have been able to mark 28 graves so far at the graveyard on Mississagua Street.

Now, together with a group of supporters, they have launched a campaign to raise $150,000 for restoration work.

So far Russell has spent about $4,000 of his own money on the project. Earlier in the year, he paid for ground-penetrating radar to help determine where the unmarked graves were.

He then placed little Canadian flags on each site. Many of the names of those buried are still unknown.

That’s something he wants to change.

The next steps of the project will see a variety of stages. With the help of Archaeological Research Associates Ltd. stage one will focus on identifying who is buried, stage two will focus on unearthing the headstones and stage three will be restoring the headstones.

That work is expected to cost about $59,000.

George Webber and Niki Walker are leading the fundraising efforts through a new steering committee. Their goal is to raise $150,000 and Webber hopes to use any leftover money on other burial sites that need work.

“There are other burial sites in Niagara-on-the-Lake that could use a little attention and use a little love,” said Webber.

The town, however, won’t let Archaeological Research Associates Ltd. begin work until the group has the amount for the first stage, which is $5,000. Webber said they’re about two-fifths of the way there.

Since the cemetery is town property, Russell was always adamant about the town paying for this project, he said. But town officials have told him there is no budget for the work, he  said.

Webber is determined to raise the $150,000 without the town’s help.

“We’ve decided that as a committee, and as a project, we would like this to be self-funded,” he said.

He’s confident that residents will be supportive on this journey.

Russell is focusing on the research side of the project. He and his wife arrive in NOTL this week for a month and he plans to spend a lot of time at the library digging up information.

Recently, he discovered that a 21-year-old white female is buried at the site. Her name was Susan Augusta Oakley, the daughter of John and Mary Oakley.

John Oakley was responsible for the building of a Baptist church on the grounds.

During Russell’s research, he couldn’t find any evidence of a Baptist church.

“Evidently, the Baptist church was not part of the overall Baptist organization. It was a fellowship,” he said. “Which means it wasn’t registered as a Baptist church with the larger Baptist organization and so they have no record.”

Though called the Negro Burial Ground, the plot contains just as many white people who were members of the church that was started by Oakley, according to a newspaper article in “What’s new Niagara?” from 1993.

There’s lots still unknown about the grounds, which is why Russell is determined to find answers.

“This isn’t the first time someone has made an effort to renovate the Negro Burial Grounds,” he said.

In the same article from 1993, a landscaping plan was in the works. But it doesn’t look like it got anywhere.

Russell said the grounds may also be larger than originally thought and he’s going to spend some time trying to confirm that.

To donate to the project, residents can call the town offices, which will then provide them with the account information they need to donate.

Once a website is up and running, Webber encourages people to contribute their thoughts and opinions.

“We want to share information and we want to give folks a chance to comment to let us know how they feel,” he said.