Memorial sculpture urged for NOTL’s Black burial ground

NOTL’s Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground deserves a memorial to the survivors of slavery and an organization led by a Brock University professor wants to make it happen.

“It’s really to memorialize the African diasporic people who lived, worshipped, were educated, were married, died and lived in this region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” Prof. Lissa Paul told a presentation at the St. Catharines Public Library last week.

The talk was titled “Making Decolonization Visible on the Ground.”

Paul is working with PhD student Hyacinth Campbell and Toronto artist Quentin VerCetty on the project.

The memorial would be about six feet tall and would be installed at the cemetery, formerly known as the Negro Burial Ground, on Mississagua Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The sculpture would be created using 3D printing and digital sculpting technology. It would cost about $65,000.

VerCetty, known for creating a statue of abolitionist Joshua Glover in Toronto, says the monument should feel like “a family portrait.”

“I want (it) to feel like you’re looking into history, but also looking outside of history and being a part of history,” he said.

He has created a digital draft of the sculpture online. On the draft, an archway encircling the monument was inspired “by quilts that many formerly enslaved people would make for themselves,” he said.

In the centre are eight different people who represent the farmers, workers, families, blacksmiths and children who were enslaved.

“I want to show as many representations of the community as possible,” he said.

A church and a barn are visible behind the people, with sun rays pointing to the sky.

The memorial features two birds — an eagle on the left and a Canada goose on the right.

The eagle represents former slaves who came to Canada and the goose represents Canadian Black loyalists, he said.

VerCetty wrote a poem that will be engraved on the sculpture.

It will say, “For the African ancestors who are known, and for those whose names we are yet to recall, whose remains sleep here, this marker is to honour you, a veneration of your presence, your story and contribution to the regions,” he said.

The existing historic plaque at the burial ground mentions John Oakley, a white pastor of the old Baptist church. Next to the plaque are the tombstones of Oakley and his daughter.

The new monument would represent the “enslaved individuals who resolutely resisted day after day, year after year, century after century, the sadistic brutality of their enslavers,” said Paul.

Tim Kenyon works at Brock University and has lived in Niagara for about five years. A few years ago he visited Niagara-on-the-Lake for the first time with his son.

It was mid-summer and the streets were packed with stop-and-go traffic. It just happens that they were stopped right beside the burial ground.

“We saw the sign and we saw the headstones. And I was profoundly ashamed,” he said.

The other part of the project is a website Campbell has set up called Memorials to People in Fugitive Ads.

It aims at following the people who were listed in “fugutive-slave” ads in newspapers.

Along with the ads, Campbell found more than 20 first-hand accounts written in 1856 by slaves. The can be read on the website.

The first-hand accounts are from The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, part of the eCampusOntario Public Domain Core Collection, the website says.

Campbell read five testimonials from the website during the presentation.

“Where I came from, it would make your flesh creep, and your hair stand on end, to know what they do to the slaves,” Campbell said, quoting James Seaward, a fugitive slave from St. Catharines.

The audience was silent as each word sank in.

Though VerCetty has read these testimonials before, “It still hits me,” he said, shaking his head.

There’s still lots of work to be done. First, the three will need to go before Niagara-on–the-Lake council and present their idea.

They know what needs to be done and how they want it to look, now they need to get the town’s approval. Then they can start the funding process.

To get the memorial built “would mean that there is interest to improve society (and) improve the community,” said VerCetty.

Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report