top of page
  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

“The Colours of Essex County” highlights significance of historic African-Canadian cemeteries

by Sylene Argent

For over fifty-years, Harrow resident, Elise Harding-Davis, has been working to preserve and obtain heritage status for local African-Canadian cemeteries. She has taken the knowledge of what she has been able to learn through that work and has compiled that information in a book she titled, “The Colours of Essex County: Historic African Canadian Cemeteries.”

She shared some of that information through a presentation with the Amherstburg Freedom Museum before the start of Black History Month.

“Graveyards are very informative places. I have always loved to go through graveyards and read the gravestones,” Harding-Davis said. “You can get so much information.”

The title for the book was something that came to her because, “There are so many cultures represented in Essex County, but my colour stands out to me; just like leaves in the fall, all the different hues that are represented.”

African-Canadians have been in Essex County every bit as long as most of the other colonial cultures, Harding-Davis explained.

A black settlement began as early as 1792 in what is now Colchester. Hopetown was a community on the 3rd Concession, near Drummond Road, just outside of Harrow. Other black settlements were located along the great lakes as that “was the highway of the day,” Harding-Davis said.

Locally, those settlements were located in Anderdon, Mersea, Gosfield, Colchester, Maidstone, Rochester, Harrow, and New Canaan.

Through her work in preserving this history, Harding-Davis said it has been her mission to establish that African-Canadians are the fourth founding pioneering culture in Canada, she said.

In Essex County, there are 13 black cemeteries cited.

Central Grove Church Cemetery is located on Walker Road in Harrow. As a church, it was established in 1911. The cemetery has been there, however, since the 1860s. A portion of property was donated from a Mr. McCurdy for African-Canadians to be buried at Central Grove.

Gilgal Cemetery is located on Walker Road. It is also referred to as the Taylor Cemetery, as the only marker left is dedicated to a Mr. Taylor.

The Harrow British Methodist Episcopal Church is located on Walnut Street in Harrow. This was a cemetery that really reached into Harding-Davis’s heart and made her decide to do something about it. The cemetery was derelict, with weeds as high as five-feet. Broken markers were piled around a tree. It was used for overflow parking for the annual Harrow Fair. She was part of a group that petitioned the Town to make it a heritage site. Many individuals and groups worked to restore and beautify the site.

“It is one of the most beautiful cemetery sites in the entire area,” she said. “I am very, very proud of the fact the Town now takes care of this site.”

Mount Pleasant Cemetery, located at the rear of Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church National Historic Site Memorial Cemetery in Amherstburg. She spoke of how three broken gravestones were brought to The Amherstburg Freedom Museum in the past, and when the Nazery AME became a national historic site, a memorial was erected at the back of the church to honour these individuals. Mount Pleasant was originally located on the 6th Concession in Malden Township.

New Canaan Cemetery is located on County Road 12. This is where Delos Rogest Davis is buried. He was the first black man to become a lawyer locally in 1882. He was a teacher and fireman. He helped to map out large parts of the Town of Essex. He had a business in Amherstburg. A desk that belonged to him, and his son, Fred, is located at the Amherstburg Freedom Museum.

Puce Memorial Cemetery is located on County Road 42. It was designated to the British Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1932, the road – then old #2 Highway– was widened, and 30-feet from the front of the cemetery was demolished, Harding-Davis said. In 2011, a friend, Glen Cook, called her to say he found a marker. He relayed the gravestone was for Elizabeth Lee, wife of Ludwell Lee, and their son, James.

The marker had been broken and went under reconstruction.

“My grandfather took me to this cemetery numerous times looking for this marker,” she said, explaining Ludwell Lee was her four-times great-grandfather. “He was born a slave in Virginia. His mother, Kissy, was the daughter of Light Horse Harry Lee, by a black slave woman, whose name we’ve never found out.”

This makes Kissy the half-sister of General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

“Many blacks, whose families have been here in Essex County and beyond, have been here since the late 1700s. And we were the descendants of slaves, who were owned by prominent white pioneers of the United States.”

She spoke how Canada was colonized by the French first, with the help of a free black man named Mathieu da Costa. He was a navigator, who helped to bring Samuel de Champlain to Canada. He was also an interpreter, who interpreted between the Mi’kmaq First Nations people and the French.

Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery is located outside of Kingsville on Division Road North. It is located inside Kingsville Memorial Gardens. She, and a few other individuals, explored the area and only found a base of a gravestone and some items dating back to the 1800s.

A black granite stone is there that includes family names and where their properties were located.

St. Mark’s Cemetery is located on Dunn Road in Essex. It dates back to the 1840s.

“The Dunn Road – we could call it our First Lady – in Colchester, because all of the different cultures came along the Detroit River and came up in Colchester…just adjacent to that is the Dunn Road. It leads you on into Canada,” she said.

The Puce River Black Community Cemetery is located on County Road 42. It has an Ontario Heritage Trust plaque, through the efforts of Cook and members and the Lakeshore Black Heritage Community, she explained.

Cook found out the property was deeded in 1872 from the Refugee Home Society to the British Methodist Episcopal Church conference. A church was built there that served the area until the 1920s.

Here, there is a monument to Lewis Jackson, the half-brother of Henry Bibb, who was a founder of the Refugee Home Society.

The monument’s epitaph states “Born a slave in Kentucky.” It is the only remaining marker at the Puce River Black Community Cemetery. It has been re-erected. It had been stolen. After pleas to have it returned, it was brought back and dumped into the ditch out front, where it was found.

“It is one of the few markers I know in all of Canada that has on it ‘born a slave.’ It is a very significant marker,” Harding-Davis said.

The Walls Family Cemetery is located at the John Freeman Walls Historic Site, located on Puce Road. The Walls family history is renowned via a book titled “The Road that Led to Somewhere” written by Dr. Brian Walls, she said.

In 1857 John Freeman Walls – a fugitive slave from North Carolina – built a log cabin on land purchased from the Refugee Home Society. The cabin served as a terminus for the Underground Railroad and was the first meeting place for the Puce Baptist Church.

Hopetown Cemetery is located around the former settlement, near the 3rd Concession and Drummond Road in Colchester.

Smith Cemetery is located on Banwell Road in Tecumseh. It is an Ontario Heritage Trust site. It was later known as the Banwell Road Black Settlement Cemetery.

A church site cemetery plot, Harding-Davis said, was generally able to hold 500 plots. This would mean there could be around 6500 potential burials.

The number of black individuals in Essex County in 1812 was 4000, Harding-Davis explained.

“So, a lot of our ancestors are buried here,” she said.

Harding-Davis spoke of the work she was dedicated to when she worked at the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, and the work that is still ongoing that preserves an important piece of local history.

“I tell people, without Black History, history is incomplete. Without knowing about the black culture and our contributions, a person’s education is not complete,” Harding-Davis said.

The book is available at the Amherstburg Freedom Museum. $5 of the sale of the book will be forwarded to the Museum.


bottom of page