The Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery that sits along Grey Road 4 just outside of Priceville in Grey Highlands consists of several memorial plaques and a monument that depicts the history of the Black settlers who once lived there.
The cemetery site has been a topic of discussion around the Grey County council table in recent weeks after the council and county staff had made a formal offer to purchase the land to the north of the cemetery site for a transportation depot.
The purchase of the land for a depot site drew criticism from the public and the cemetery’s committee that has been working to restore and preserve the site’s history since 1989.
The committee believes there are likely graves and headstones scattered across the area and would prefer the land be left undisturbed.
Grey County has since backtracked on the formal offer to purchase and apologized to the committee for its lack of awareness about the site and its history.
Following an apology from Grey County’s CAO, the Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery committee has asked the county to do more to preserve and draw attention to the site and its history.
Committee president Naomi Norquay has asked the county to consider going ahead with the land purchase and transforming the lot into a commemorative heritage site.
“The idea for the county to purchase the lot and transform it into an interpretive, commemorative space was something we kind of got behind, but it actually came from the community,” she said.
Norquay explained the idea would be to let the foliage grow and eventually establish some hiking and walking trails on the 40-acre site.
“We all just think there's a potential for this to be a small, but wonderful, space that would also protect the cemetery,” she said. “It's something that could develop over time.”
She suggested that, in combination with the cemetery, the site would be a great resource for local educators to bring kids into nature and learn about the history of both Grey Highlands and Grey County.
Representatives from Grey County visited the cemetery on June 11 for a tour where they discussed the concept with Norquay.
The current assessed value of the lot the county is looking at is $140,000, and as the county’s formal offer to purchase is already in the works, the decision to purchase the land or not will have to be made before the fall.
If the county backs out of the purchase, the land will remain for sale.
Norquay said the committee’s main concern is if the site were to be mined for gravel, as there are thought to be graves and headstones scattered beneath the surface of the land across the site's 40-acres, as well as under Grey Road 4.
“When they did the probe in ‘98, they actually found evidence of burial shafts along the road and in the ditch. We think there are roughly 80 people buried here,” she explained.
She added that two probes have been conducted at the site – one in 1998 and a smaller area was explored in 2015, where the monument was placed.
It is estimated that in 1849, 16 Black families claimed lots on Durham Road and buried their dead at the corner of Larkin Alverson’s 50-acre lot, which is where the cemetery site sits today.
In the 1930’s a farmer buried the tombstones of the Black cemetery to make way for a potato patch.
In 1989, a corner of land that housed the cemetery site was donated to the Township of Artemisia. Since that time, the cemetery committee has been working diligently to find the lost history and preserve whatever pieces of information could be cobbled together.
In 2014, the committee built the monument that sits at the site today and houses the headstones that were recovered.
“A stonemason was by and he suggested that a sledgehammer was used and that someone actually tried to smash that one and this one is well,” Norquay said, pointing to the headstones of James and Ellen Handy.
“What we did here was we researched all the names by looking in the census and the land records of the census, because they marked race in the ‘51 and ‘61 censuses, we were able to find the names of the families that had been here and would have likely been buried in this cemetery.”
Norquay adds that the demolition and destruction of Black cemeteries and their history is a common issue in many Grey County and Ontario communities.
She points to the Negro Creek Road in the Holland Township where, at some point when Highway 6 was widened, the Black cemetery connected to the Negro Creek settlement was bulldozed and built over.
The Greenwood Cemetery in Owen Sound is another example, as it is estimated that over 1,200 people were buried there without grave markers or public record.
“Every township has some action or inaction that violated and then made that history disappear,” she said.
Moving forward, Norquay said she is hopeful that Grey County will see its current position as an opportunity to right several of the wrongs that have occurred over time to the Black pioneers that once settled on this land.
Grey County council are expected to discuss the cemetery committee's proposal at a meeting scheduled for July 8.
Jennifer Golletz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca