Abandoned Ontario cemetery with graves of Black settlers to be restored after campaign by local advocates

December 9, 2021
Abandoned Ontario cemetery with graves of Black settlers to be restored after campaign by local advocates
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An abandoned cemetery southeast of Hamilton, Ont., which is the final resting place for Black settlers — including the niece of a famed anti-slavery icon — will soon be restored thanks to some local volunteers and county councillors.

People who escaped slavery in the United States are buried at the Street-Barnes Cemetery, tucked away in a copse of trees in the middle of a field. No one’s been buried there since the 1940s, and the 500-square-metre site is now littered with overturned tombstones, unkempt brush, dead trees and tangles of old fence wire. 

Sylvia Weaver, a local historian and author, says at least a dozen people are buried in the cemetery, which is near Canfield in Haldimand County — including Carrie Barnes, whose renowned aunt Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape to Canada via the Underground Railroad in the 1800s.

Rosemary Sadlier, a Toronto-based historian and former president of the Ontario Black History Society, says the rehabilitation work can’t come soon enough.

“Often, sadly, because of racism, because of ignorance, because of migration, the presence of people of African descent in certain communities is completely erased,” she said, noting that cemeteries “often provide the only tangible evidence of their living there … of a Black settlement.”

Sylvia Weaver, a local author, worked to persuade Haldimand County to erect a memorial to the area’s Black settlers in 2018. (Mike Smee/CBC)

‘It’s Canadian history’

Aileen Duncan, from nearby Hamilton and a descendant of the Street family, after whom the cemetery is named, said it was a “thrill” for her to see her great-great-grandparents’ names at the site.

“This just absolutely left me speechless,” she said.

Tombstones lie broken at the historic Street-Barnes Cemetery, soon to be the subject of a $100,000 facelift. (Chris Mulligan/CBC)

Only eight grave markers are still visible, but Duncan says it’s important that everyone be able to visit the site, not just those whose relatives are buried there.

“This isn’t just for my family or the other descendants…. It’s Canadian history.”

But, right now, the site is not accessible to the public.

Duncan, who uses a walker, needs to get permission before she can visit her ancestors’ graves because the cemetery is on private land and is publicly inaccessible from the nearest road. The current landowner allows Duncan into the site using his driveway because she has promised not to hold him liable for any potential injuries.

$100K budget set for rehabilitation

Duncan, Weaver and Graeme Bachiu, a local filmmaker, have been advocating for the cemetery’s restoration for several years and it appears they’re finally getting some traction.

Coun. John Metcalfe, who sits on Haldimand County council and its heritage board, says Haldimand is in the process of acquiring the cemetery and has budgeted about $100,000 for its rehabilitation.

Haldimand County Coun. John Metcalfe has been helping organize the drive to take over and rehabilitate the Street-Barnes Cemetery. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Metcalfe says he wants to clean up “the leaning trees, the debris on the ground … just making it safe” for people to enter the site.  

“But we have to have ownership of the property, which is what’s being worked on right now,” he said.

According to Ontario’s Cemeteries Act, private landowners whose properties include abandoned cemeteries must keep them properly groomed. If they choose not to, the local municipality can take them over without payment, as long as the local council promises to keep the grounds in good condition.

Haldimand County has made that promise and the land is in the process of being transferred into the county’s care.

The gravestone of Carrie Barnes, a niece of Harriet Tubman, is one of only eight that are visible in the Street-Barnes Cemetery. (Chris Mulligan/CBC)

Metcalfe says after the cleanup the county would like to see a committee of descendants and local historians decide on what memorials should be placed at the site.

Duncan already has plenty of ideas.

“I’d like to see the stones resurrected. I’d like to see grass on the ground and benches so that people can come in and sit. We could have a small garden with flowers and things like that in here. All I can think about is the peacefulness here.” 

But first, another roadblock must be cleared: access to the site.

Carrie Barnes on her wedding day in Welland, Ont., in 1891. (Sylvia Weaver)

That means persuading an adjacent landowner, plus the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, to surrender enough land to the county to build a path or roadway to the cemetery from the highway, about 500 metres away.

Metcalfe says lawyers for everyone involved are working out that easement and he expects the cleanup to begin in the spring.

‘A feeling of reverence’

Spencer Martin, another descendant of those buried in the cemetery, says entering the graveyard evokes “a feeling of reverence of what people have gone through to get here. And it’s the story of every immigrant that’s come to this country to escape adversity.” 

Bachiu, the local filmmaker, has spent years researching the cemetery and has chronicled its history in his series Canfield Roots.

“The fabric of Canadian society is made up of all different types of ethnicities, genders,” he said.

“When we start to recognize that there were historic freedom seekers [who were] settlers in rural areas such as this … then we learn more about ourselves as a people, we learn more about ourselves as a society.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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