Keeping the memory of a lost cemetery alive

·6 min read
Mary Louise McCarthy-Brandt says the province's preparations for the Mactaquac Dam west of Fredericton led to the desecration of her ancestors' graves. (Shane Fowler CBC - image credit)
Mary Louise McCarthy-Brandt says the province's preparations for the Mactaquac Dam west of Fredericton led to the desecration of her ancestors' graves. (Shane Fowler CBC - image credit)

Mary Louise McCarthy-Brandt has been coming to the Kingsclear Kilburn Community Cemetery for decades.

Overlooking the St. John River, off Route 102, the cemetery is easy to miss, but McCarthy-Brandt wants to make sure its story isn't forgotten.

The people she's remembering when she visits the cemetery aren't actually buried there.

They are her ancestors, early Black New Brunswickers, whose graves are deep under water at the bottom of the St. John River.

The graves of more than 40 Black residents were left behind when the rest of the graveyard was relocated decades ago.

McCarthy-Brandt said her ancestors' graves were desecrated — and she wants a public apology.

The cemetery relocation project

In the 1960s, when NB Power was preparing to build the Mactaquac Dam, people who lived along the river above the dam site had to leave their homes.

Agricultural land and whole communities were flooded when the river rose because of the dam. Houses and churches were moved or burned, and even graveyards had to be moved to higher ground.

Gathering information to determine what had to be moved was an arduous process.

Shane Fowler
Shane Fowler

"They did town hall meetings, they did newspapers," said McCarthy-Brandt, who has spent years researching Black graveyards in the province for her doctorate.

"They had a crew of people that would investigate … and they had to move a lot of cemeteries."

Their lives, their story really does matter. It needs to be told. - Jennifer Dow, family history researcher

Records from the provincial archives show a list of cemeteries in the area that were moved as part of the "cemetery relocation project."

The number of headstones and monuments moved and the number of graves re-interred are recorded. At the Mactaquac United Baptist Church cemetery, for example, 129 monuments and 311 graves were relocated.

NB Provincial Archives
NB Provincial Archives

Of the cemeteries listed in the relocation project, all are marked as "completed" except the Kingsclear (Early Negro) Cemetery.

The instructions for that one are: "Not to be Moved or Disturbed."

Segregated burial areas

The Kingsclear Kilburn Community Cemetery was originally about half a kilometre upriver from where it is now.

It was segregated — white people were buried on higher ground, and Black people were buried closer to the river, below the train tracks that ran through the area.

The lower side, the Black side, was called the Kingsclear (Early Negro) Cemetery.

NB Provincial Archives
NB Provincial Archives

The land the cemetery now sits on was sold by Laurie Jordan's grandfather to NB Power for a dollar, according to Jordan's wife, Twilla Reagon.

But eventually, even the relocated cemetery was lost to overgrowth until Jordan took it on as a project and cleaned it up and maintained it.

Before Jordan's death in 2020, he and Reagon lived next to the Kingsclear Kilburn Community Cemetery for nearly 20 years, and he grew up next to the cemetery in its old location.

He was 15 or 16 years old when the cemetery was moved, Reagon said.

"He actually worked or was there as they were transferring some of the remains ... to the new location, including several members of his own family," she said.

Lauren Bird CBC
Lauren Bird CBC

But at the time, whether because they were unmarked or because no one was there to advocate for them, the graves of Black New Brunswickers weren't moved.

"What has been written is that they brought in big Caterpillar-like tractors and they filled the ground with ... crushed fine stone and they covered all the graves," said McCarthy-Brandt.

Then, she said, they rolled over the fine stone with tractors and raised the water level.

Constantly hitting walls

Family historian Jennifer Dow, who is McCarthy-Brandt's cousin, said that learning who those graves belonged to has come with its own challenges.

"Most of those buried here would have been born late 1700s up until probably the 1890s," Dow said, noting, "we don't know exactly how many people are buried here."

Dow has combed the provincial archives, newspaper records and death certificates for any information she can find.

However, she said, much of the information that is readily available is inaccurate.

"I'm constantly hitting walls where I have to go back and find documentation and try to set the record straight on the actual history."

Shane Fowler CBC
Shane Fowler CBC

Through their dogged research, Dow and McCarthy-Brandt have been able to track more than 40 names of people who were buried in the cemetery, members of the Cox, McCarty and O'Rea families, among others.

"The people that are buried here, they're connected to all of us in the community," Dow said.

"So their lives, their story really does matter. It needs to be told."

Granite monument recovered, repositioned

A granite monument now stands at the top of the Kingsclear Kilburn Community Cemetery, memorializing those who were never reburied. It says:

This memorial a sacred reminder and tribute to the decease of The Kingsclear Early Negro Cemetery.

Names of deceased:

Peters, Wheary, McCarty, Francis, Diamond, Middleton, Cox, Henry, O'Rea, Patterson, Sloat, Rivers

The monument didn't turn out as originally planned.

A mock-up in the provincial archives from 1968 shows a design with more detail, including more names as well as dates and ages.

That version, however, was scrapped.

"They took all of the dates of birth and dates of deaths out, and they just listed 12 names," McCarthy-Brandt said. "That's all they put."

NB Provincial Archives
NB Provincial Archives

At the time the stone was installed, the cemetery was still segregated. A nearby church took over the operation but was unable to afford the upkeep and the cemetery became overgrown.

"If you drove by, you didn't even know there was a cemetery," Reagon said.

Eventually, when her husband went looking for the monument, he found it face down on the ground.

"The stone had been placed in the Black section, which is on the farthest side down the river," said Reagon.

Jordan pulled the stone from the brush and brought it home, where he repaired and cleaned it and then found a proper place for it.

"It was time for it to be moved to a spot where it actually would stand for what it needed to stand for … so they decided to put it at the front of the cemetery," Reagon said.

Now, she said, it's in a prominent spot, so that when people visit, "they understand there is a historical aspect."

Shane Fowler
Shane Fowler

Reagon, McCarthy-Brandt and other board members of the Kingsclear Kilburn Community Cemetery have been asking NB Power for a new stone memorial for the cemetery, one that tells the story of the people buried there.

NB Power has agreed, and a new monument has been commissioned and will be paid for by NB Power. No one from the utility was available to be interviewed for this story.

McCarthy-Brandt said she has asked Mike Holland, the minister of natural resources and energy development, for a public apology for what has been lost to the descendents of those buried at the Kingsclear (Early Negro) Cemetery.

CBC News asked Holland for a response but did not immediately hear back.

That apology hasn't happened yet, but McCarthy-Brandt plans to keep asking until she gets one.

"It's a sense of our ancestors' connection, a sense of validation — that we were important, that we mattered, and a sense that we were coming from another example," she said.

"We were not valued by the mainstream community. And it's up to us, this generation and the next descendants, to highlight our value."

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.

CBC
CBC
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