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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Local organizations partner to celebrate the life of Louisa Payne on Emancipation Day

- neighbours purchased a gravestone last year to mark her final resting place -

Tom Weir, a Trustee of the Fairbairn Cemetery for 25-years, Ted Ure, whose grandfather was one of the original Fairbairn Cemetery trustees, Jane O’Keefe, one of the neighbours who helped to get a grave marker, Irene Moore Davis of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, George Fairbairn, whose family provided the land for the Fairbairn Cemetery, Pastor Tom Collins, and Curator of the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, Mary-Katherine Whelan, pose around the new grave stone that marks the final resting place of former Sandwich South resident, Louisa Payne.

by Sylene Argent

Many know the historical significance of the Underground Railroad and how this network was used to help enslaved and free African Americans escape into Canada during the early to mid-19th century.

  Few, however, may have a personal connection to that network and the lives it helped to change.

  On Monday, August 1 – nationally recognized as Emancipation Day, marking the actual day in 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire – representatives of a few local organizations came together at the Fairbairn Cemetery on Baseline Road to celebrate the life of Louisa Payne.

  Payne was born in 1839. She fled from Georgia with her parents as enslaved people and landed in Sandwich South. There, she and her family farmed 25-acres on the 9th Concession, living in a log home. She resided there until her death in 1937.

  Louisa was well loved by her neighbours and school children. Stories continue to be passed along from generation-to-generation about her friendly nature, her beautiful flowers, and how many of the well-kept period costumes she had went on to be used in local church plays.

  Representatives of the Olde Sandwich South and Area Historical Society, the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, and the Essex County Black Historical Research Society gathered at her gravesite at Fairbairn Cemetery to commemorate her life, and recognize the neighbours who purchased and placed a grave marker on her final resting place last year, after discovering it was left unmarked.

  Last year, neighbours Jane O’Keefe and Ted and Arlene Ure collectively purchased a grave marker for Payne’s final resting place.

  O’Keefe recalled the stories her late husband, Mike, told her of Payne. They were stories his father, Raymond, passed onto him.

  Payne lived in an orchard on the 9th concession. Those apple trees are gone, but a nut tree she cared for still stands today, thanks to a request in her will that it be cared for.

  At one point, Payne’s property was about to be repossessed, but O’Keefe’s father-in-law stepped up financially. As a result, when Payne passed, she left her property to him.

  Payne named Raymond as her first friend in some official documents.     

  When the O’Keefe and Ure families came to realize she did not have a grave marker, O’Keefe said it was only right they step in and make sure she had one.

  Irene Moore Davis, of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, said the ceremony was a beautiful way to recognize Payne.

  “The lives of the freedom seekers who made their way here are often not adequately shared. Their stories are untold, and it is wonderful that this group of volunteers have decided to devote this event and this wonderful new grave marker to the memory of Louisa Payne,” Moore Davis said.

  Freedom seekers, Moore Davis continued, largely made their way through the Underground Railroad on their own, with some assistance along the way. Freedom seekers made those journeys on foot, often without the ability to read or use a map, or many resources.

  She spoke of the many settlements established in the 19th century throughout the region by people of African-descent, including the Banwell Road Area Settlement, which was located close to the Fairbairn Cemetery.  

  It was important for people who spent all of their lives farming for others, with no access to the fruits of their labours, to finally become a landowner.

  “Landownership meant pride and dignity and security,” she said, adding it also meant having a voice in their community.


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