For years, decades actually, no doubt many of us have passed the old cemetery on Mississagua Street in Old Town, perhaps noticed the large historical plaque celebrating the property, or wondered about the few gravestones still visible.
Historically known as the Negro Burial Ground, but now commemorated as the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground, this site is one of vital importance, evidence of the role played by Niagara-on-the-Lake some 200 years ago as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
But more than that, it is a reminder that in the 1800s what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake welcomed and became home to a sizeable Black population, many of whom we presume made this cemetery their final resting place.
On one hand it should be a point of pride for Niagara that our wee town had an important role in the Underground Railroad, the emancipation movement and in opposing slavery.
On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that it took the efforts of man “from away,” a visitor to these parts for decades, to begin to ask the important questions that needed to be asked. For starters, who is buried there?
Full credit and kudos to Jim Russell for leading the charge to find out more about the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground, to spend his own money to get the project off the ground and to convince NOTL town council to help make it all happen.
“Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them,” Russell told council last March, quoting Victorian writer and journalist Mary Ann Evans.
We are hopeful that the project he has launched will ensure that those who are buried there are, indeed, not forgotten.
Up till now, they might not have been wholly forgotten, but they certainly were not top of mind. Russell’s plea to recognize and research the individuals buried there was such an obviously valid one, it’s a wonder the community hadn’t embarked on that journey already.
As Russell aptly noted, “It has always bothered me that the field is simply an open grass area. I would hope that more respect would be given to the dead and at least an effort would be made to identify those beneath the ground.”
He’s made that effort and continues to pursue the project in earnest.
While we understand that actually identifying some of the individuals will be a tough task, at least we can be sure that big-picture wise, Russell’s searching will have shone a light on and drawn attention to this important part of our collective history.
We wish him well and hope the town and the community continues to support the endeavour. It’s a chance for us to see history unfold and ensure the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground is a respected and revered testament to the past.