Town buries legacy of black settlers and salvaging the dignity
Writers, film makers probe hidden history of black Canadians
By DeNeen L. Brown / Washington Post

PRICEVILLE, Ontario -- Some say only the dead in this town can speak the truth about how a virtually all-black settlement in Canada turned virtually all-white. But then, some of the living won't let them. For years, the history of this rural settlement in southwestern Ontario was wrapped in a spooky silence. Photographs disappeared. Grave sites were plowed over, and tombstones from the black cemetery were stolen, hidden in stone piles, used as home plate in baseball games and as stepping stones in a wet basement.
It was as if the town were trying to erase the existence of the black pioneers who settled this area in the early 1800s. Hide the fact that some of the whites who came here later married some of the blacks. Hide the fact that many generations later, some white people still living in this town may not be white at all. Just a drop, they used to say.
"There is a lot of history people don't know about," said Howard Sheffield, whose black ancestors lived in Priceville, about 100 miles northwest of Toronto. "The white people wanted to cover that history up because it relates back to them. They are black people that are passing for white. Some of those white people drove the rest of the blacks out."
Eventually, the only trace that black people had ever been in Priceville, working the land and building homes and a school, was the cemetery. Then in the 1930s, a white farmer named Billy Reid bought the land, plowed over the cemetery and planted potatoes.
That is what they say became of the history of black people in this part of Ontario. It was plowed over, buried and hushed up. But some of it survived, as when adults would whisper secrets, unaware that children were listening.

DeNeen L. Brown / Associated Press

Howard Sheffield, whose ancestors lived in Priceville, Ontario, says some people don't want to know about the past. He holds chains that were used to bind slaves.

Now, black Canadians -- who make up about 1 percent of the country's 31 million people -- are trying to put the broken tombstones back together, pick up the pieces of their ancestry and fill in the spaces that were left in the history books. Books, plays and documentaries about the black experience in Canada have recently been released as a new generation of African-Canadians comes of age and tries to tell a history it was not taught in school.
"It was a shameful spot in the history of the community," said Jennifer Holness, director of Speakers for the Dead, a film distributed by Canada's National Film Board that traces the search for tombstones in a divided town. "Shameful they eradicated the gravestones, which indicates how blacks were treated, that blacks were forced off the land and white settlers took their land. There were some intermarriages they thought of as shameful. There is a desire to keep that quiet."
But Holness said the story of Priceville encapsulates the story of racism in Canada and digs beneath a stereotype of racial tolerance. "We as Canadians trot around and say, 'Americans are so racist. Look at the segregation down South. Look at the lynchings.' But it was just as bad in Canada. We didn't have official segregation. But there were places blacks couldn't go. We can't be smug about Canada's place in history when it comes to racism."
The Priceville area was, she said, in some ways the Deep South of the North.
"Canada had slaves," said Sheffield, who lives in Collingwood, about 30 miles east of Priceville. "Don't think they didn't. Some escaped from the South, some were brought from the South and some were kept as slaves. They like to think it didn't happen here."
James Walker, author of A History of Blacks in Canada: A Study Guide for Teachers and Students, said the first black person known to have lived in Canada was a young boy who came to the country as a slave in 1628 and was sold in Quebec.
From the 1600s to the early 1800s, "there was never a time when blacks were not held as slaves in Canada. Slavery is thus a very real part of our history, yet the fact that slavery ever existed here has been one of our best-kept secrets."
White Loyalists escaping the American Revolution brought many blacks as slaves to Canada.
Holness and film maker David Sutherland have pursued the story of Priceville because, they said, they wanted to tell the story of blacks in Canada who were not recent immigrants but who arrived here more than seven generations ago.
Sutherland said that in Priceville the film makers often ran into people who were reluctant to talk. "The underlying thing up there is you are who your grandparents are," Sutherland said. "We found some people who didn't want this to go further. 'Leave well enough alone. Aren't you people satisfied? Why do you want to stir up trouble?' "
"I thought, 'Trouble?' What does that mean? The idea of black ancestry, is that supposed to be trouble? As a black person, I don't see how that is trouble. But if more names were discovered, that might unsettle some people."

Salvaging the Dignity of a Slave Cemetery (Black Studies Org)

Last month, Hank Avery, a grade 3 teacher at Bedford Elementary School, in St. Armand Station in the Eastern Townships burst into the news when he stumbled across what he thought were attempts to desecrate a long forgotten slave cemetery. It turned out that those rumours were unfounded but Avery inevitably became caught up in a campaign to have a monument erected to mark the site where slaves were buried about 200 years ago and to have it designated an historical location. He also wants the name of the site, Nigger Rock changed to Slave Rock.

Because the burial ground is located on the property of a local farmer, Clément Benoit, Avery's first challenge has been to get Benoit to agree to have the monument erected and to allow visitors to the site. Recently, Avery and the Mississquoi Historical Society met with Benoit. Avery says the farmer has softened his position somewhat and might allow visitors to the site but is yet to agree to the construction of a monument. However, negotiations are on-going.

Avery has also been able to elicit the support of the Town Council of St. Armand Station to put pressure on Quebec's Cultural Affairs department to designate the site a historical location. The "St. Armand Burying Ground" at Nigger Rock a 60 meter slab of black limestone which marks the spot is one of four slave cemeteries listed in Canada. One is located in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, another in Princeville Ontario and the other in Dresden Ontario.

Recently, Hank Avery took some time off from his very busy schedule to chronicle for the Community Contact his efforts to salvage the dignity of the final resting place of some of our ancestors. He is calling on the Black community to rally its support to his campaign by writing to various government ministers urging official action on the issue.

Quest for belated honor

by Hank Avery

My involvement in the struggle to secure and preserve the recently discovered slave cemetery in St. Armand began innocently enough. It all started after I received a phone call from a friend of mine who told me that "they" were digging around "Nigger Rock" and asked me if I was aware of this. I told her I was not but that I would check into it. During the next couple of days I made some phone calls to try and find out if this was just a "rumor". Finally I found out that it was false when I made a personal visit to the site.

However, it did occur to me that, here I was standing in a field, on a road that passes over the site that was a burial ground for slaves. It had no fence. It had no markers. Obviously no thought had been given to these poor souls that rested here. I was disturbed by this. Later I received a call from Mr. Claude Arpin of the Montreal Gazette. He too had heard the "rumor" and wanted my thoughts.

It was at this time that I asked the question that began this quest: Why after all these years has this site has not been protected to the same degree as the Luke Cemetery around the corner? The Luke Cemetery is fenced, to keep the horses from walking on this holy ground. Did not these people deserve the same respect? After the article ran in the Gazette, I began to receive calls of support. I was overwhelmed by the positive messages received.

Then, other newspapers and media outlets including the Boston Globe, the Voix de l'Est, Sherbrooke Record, Calgary Radio, CBC Radio and CBC television ran the story; the response again was overwhelming. Since then, I, the president of the Mississquoi Historical Society and other interested individuals have sat down with the farmer to "clear the air". I have apologized to him for the inconvenience that this publicity has caused him, and for the insensitivity of the media as they tried to get the story.

We sat down with him hoping he could accommodate our basic three wishes:

  • Do you agree, that because of the presence of the Slave cemetery that this site is historic?
  • Would you object to a permanent monument on the grounds
  • Would you mind having to direct visitors to the end of the road and allow them to cross your land so as not to disturb the house?

We reached an agreement on the last two questions but not the first.

At this point we are beginning to mobilize. We are asking the public to send letters to the provincial minister of Culture, Louise Beaudoin and to Cyril Simard pres. Comm. Des Biens Coullurd, Mr. Lawrence Friend Exec. Sec. Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, also to the federal representative of the area, Denis Paradis, and his provincial counterpart Pierre Paradis. We have developed a form letter for those who would like to help.

It is obvious that the different levels of government should recognize this archaeological site as historic and ensure its preservation by erecting a plaque or monument to commemorate the Black slaves who have played a significant role in the development of this area of Quebec. Since it got underway, the project seems to have developed a soul of its own and as if driven by the spirits of the slaves buried here I feel compelled to continue taking action until my objectives are met.

My goals include having the site at St. Armand become a shrine, where Blacks and Whites can organize pilgrimages to pay homage to the slaves buried there. Also, I hope that as more sites are discovered, the Black community will assume the responsibility to secure and maintain these places, wherever they are, whether it is one slave in Friligsburg or three slaves in Knowlton. We have to pay our respects by tending these holy grounds. I hope the Black community will put aside differences and rally around this common goal.