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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

Virtual event features the black cemeteries of Essex County

by Sylene Argent

Last Thursday, Elise Harding-Davis, an African-Canadian Heritage Consultant, hosted an online presentation, highlighting Essex County’s lost black settlements and cemeteries.

  The event was hosted as part of the Town of Essex’s Heritage Week celebrations, which had a “Lost Settlements of Essex” theme.

  Through the online event, Harding-Davis was able to share the stories of black pioneers, freedom-fighters, and escaped slaves, “All of whom became part of the black thread in the Canadian tapestry,” Rita Jabbour said, who is the Manager of Planning for the Town of Essex, in addition to the Town’s liaison on the Essex Municipal Heritage Committee.

  Black cemeteries are scattered throughout Essex County, Harding-Davis said. “Many people have a love of cemeteries. There is a certain sense of connection and satisfaction one gets from prowling around in a graveyard, reading the information on the old, weathered headstones.”

  In Canada, there were no actual segregated cemeteries as far as legislation goes, but they were deliberately apart, Harding-Davis said. “Ceremonial acts helped repatriate us to the human family after enslavement, where we were not considered human-beings. Dignified and ritualized holy burials gave us back our status as persons, rather than objects or property, to be discarded thoughtlessly or irresponsibly.”

  She added, “Our cemeteries act as the keepers of our history. Our tombstones are the tellers of our tales.”

  Harding-Davis noted in the County of Hesse, which would become Essex County, there were less than 4000 residents in the entire County in the 1790s, with LaSalle being a First Nations Indigenous reserve.  

  In the 1850s, Harding-Davis explained, there were eight black cemeteries in Essex County. Former slaves created productive, lucrative homesteads. “These pioneering freedom-fighters carved out lives they would not have ever imagined. They owned land, educated their children, praised God as they saw fit, and buried their dead with dignity. Vestiges of these settlements still remain,” Harding-Davis said.

  With property in high demand, Harding-Davis said old cemeteries are most at risk of becoming parking lots or subdivisions. She added there are unscrupulous developers out there, who go after these abandoned sanctuaries, for those who were back and white, thinking no one is connected to the site or will stand up for them.

  The black presence in Canada, Harding-Davis said, dates back as early as 1604. Mathieu Da Costa, a seaman trained in Portugal, assisted Samuel de Champlain in helping the French arrive in Canada.

  Da Costa, Harding-Davis said, spoke many languages and acted as an interpreter between the French and what were then known as the Mi’kmaq Indians. “In my mind, that might indicate that a black man had a large responsibility in the French even settling in Canada. In 1787, refugee slaves escaped into Canada. They had fought during the War of Independence. “African-origin people came to Canada as explorers and to seek freedom from enslavement, in addition to escaping oppression and persecution, based solely on the colour of their skin.”

  Early attempts, Harding-Davis explained, to use European bond servants and indentured slaves were not very successful, as white people could leave their communities and blend into other places. Enslavement of Native Americans proved also to be less than satisfactory, based on their own philosophy that was not conducive to slavery, Harding-Davis explained. “Theirs was to share all and leave the rest.”     

  Black’s colouration stood out, she explained. They wanted the same opportunities as white individuals, instead they were placed in bondage in the U.S.

  African-Canadians owned thousands of acres as farmers in Essex County in the late 1700s and beyond. With the agricultural know-how they brought with them as plantation workers, it is said the tobacco and tomato industries were introduced by blacks, when they settled in South Western Ontario, she added.

  In Essex County, there were several small black communities. Hopetown was established in the late 1700s, and it was located in Colchester Township, encompassing the original Town of Harrow. The New Canaan settlement, near Gesto, had almost 300 black pioneers. Colchester Township had more black residents than white in the 1861 census.

  Vereeker had a Post Office in 1871, in addition to a sawmill. It was located on Pike Road, near Gilgal. Gordon, which also had a Post office in 1874, was home to a quarry, gristmill, and sawmill, and was located just outside of Amherstburg. Marble Village was located in Anderdon and New Salem and New California were located in Gosfield Township.

  Puce, Windsor, Old Sandwich Town, New Detroit, Little River, and River Canard, were all inhabited by African-Canadians.

  African-Canadian came to Essex County and settled in the early to mid 1700s as refugee slaves or as oppressed free blacks.

  Around the time she wrote her book, in 2014, there were 14 known black cemeteries in Essex County, and more have been found since.

  Over the years, settlements came and went, leaving cemeteries vulnerable to time, weather, and desecration and vandalism. Top soil, she added, has been scooped up and sold from local black cemeteries.

  Thankfully, she added, there are a small number of caregivers that protect ancestor remains and their burial grounds.

  Harding-Davis shared information about the local black cemeteries. The New Canaan Cemetery (also known as the Davis or Chavis Cemetery) is located on County Road 12. New Canaan was a prosperous settlement, with a population of around 350. Around 250 of its residents were coloured, Harding-Davis said, adding “Canaan” was a synonymous code-word to Canada.

  When Harding-Davis first saw the BME Cemetery on Walnut Street in Harrow years ago, it was overgrown with weeds, and there were broken cemetery markers piled up against a tree. “It took 40-years to have this space municipally dedicated. She said it is a wonderful site, and many, black and white, were dedicated to working on the property.

  St. Marks Cemetery is on Dunn Road in Colchester Township. The site contains the remains of black pioneers of the early 1800s, and burials still take place there. St. Marks Cemetery is older than the original church that was built in 1890.

  Harding-Davis noted one individual buried at the back of the site, which was in the area of the original cemetery, is Nelson Pettiford, who was born in 1795 in the US. He was a Private in Captain Caldwell’s Company, and later was in Captain Nelson’s Company. He was listed in the 1845 Colchester census as a farmer.

  Reverend William Ruth is also buried in the old part of St. Marks Cemetery. He was born in 1779 in the US, and came to Colchester in 1825. By 1856, he owned and cleared 50-acres in Colchester Village and had 70 acres in the bush in New Canaan. He urged people to get educated as a key to wellbeing. He passed in 1863.

  Central Grove Church and Cemetery is located on Walker Road, just outside of Harrow. Around 1880 William McCurdy donated a portion of his property for the cemetery. In 1888, trustees of the church purchased the present site, next to McCurdy’s property. Anthony Banks is buried there, who was born in Colchester in 1840. The family claims to never have been enslaved. They claim to have been the decedents of Major General Sir Isaac Brock and his cook, Almania Malawice, who is said to be a princess of Ghana.

  Gilgal is on Walker Road, located 2.5 miles north from present Central Grove Church Site. Reverend William Alexander Kersey was the Pastor, who helped to build the church with others. It was used to worship on Sundays and as a schoolroom. Delos Rogest Davis taught school here before he was accepted to the Bar as a lawyer in 1886. He is buried at the New Canaan cemetery. He was Essex County’s first black lawyer.

  The Amherstburg Freedom Museum is an important site, because its neighbouring Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1833, was the first national historic site dedicated to black history, dedicated in 2000. There is a memorial cemetery behind the church.

  The Puce Memorial Cemetery is located on County Road 42. It was established in 1850. It is believed that slaves from the Underground Railroad are buried there. The Refugee Home Society provided the opportunity for escaped slaves to get land and become self sufficient. By 1853, families could purchase 24-acre farm lots in Maidstone from the society. By 1850 there was a large black community in Maidstone, who provided hired help on the farms of Scottish settlers.

  Here, there is a tombstone for Elizabeth Lee, wife of Ludwell Lee. The marker is under reconstruction. Ludwell’s mother, Kizzie, was born in 1798, the daughter of Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and a slave woman, and half-sister to General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army Commander during the Civil War. Harding-Davis and her family are decedents.

  Puce River Black Community Cemetery is located on County Road 42, in a provincially recognized historic site. There is a marker there, belonging to Lewis Jackson, that reads “Born a Slave in Kentucky.” It is the only remaining marker there, she said. It was stolen, returned, and replaced. In Canada, Harding-Davis has never seen another marker stating someone was born in slavery.

  Jackson escaped into Canada via the Underground Railroad and settled on the 8th Concession in Maidstone.

  The Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery is located within Kingsville Memorial Gardens. In 2005 an amateur dig was hosted at this site. All that was found were a few old bottles, rustled implement parts, and the base of a grave marker, because of which, proof of the cemetery was established.

The Town of Kingsville gave the site Heritage Status, thanks to the efforts of volunteers, she said.

  The John Freeman Walls Historic Site is located on Puce Road. The descendants of John Walls own and operate the site. In 1846, a fugitive slave from North Carolina built a cabin on purchased property. It served as a terminal for the Underground Railroad and was the first meeting place for Puce Baptist Church. Walls and his family chose to remain in Canada after the end of the Civil War, she said.

  The Smith Cemetery, on Banwell Road, in Tecumseh is provincially recognized as a heritage site. The small cemetery was discovered in the area described as Negro Lot 143. The oldest stone belongs to James F. Roth, who was born in 1866 and died in 1908.

  She noted the Hopetown Cemetery, Heavenly Rest Cemetery, Rose Hill Cemetery, Windsor Memorial Gardens, and St. John’s Church in Windsor are also other significant cemeteries for blacks as well.

  Harding-Davis hopes residents will take a ride around the county to see where the cemeteries are situated. Everyone belongs here together – black, white, indigenous – building a better country in the future.

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