James Russell is hoping an archeological team will be permitted to unearth the 18 gravestones that lie beneath the grass at the Negro Burial Ground on Mississagua Street, but says it will likely be next spring before that work can proceed.
He plans to return to Niagara-on-the-Lake June 28 to put fresh flags on the graves that have been located by ground-penetrating radar — hopefully flags that will last through the winter.
He has received a proposal from ARA, a professional archeology company recommended to him by an inspector with the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, to do the dig, but that project is on hold for now.
The BAO is the administrative authority designated to enforce most provincial burial regulations.
Russell has been in contact with BAO recently “to make sure I”m following all the correct procedures,” he told The Local, but that organization and the town need to approve the work before the archeological dig can go forward.
“The BAO says I need to sit down with them and town staff first to talk about the process,” he says, since the town is the landowner of the property.
The stones, properly referred to as monuments, and likely made of marble, are not buried far beneath the ground. The ground-penetrating radar used recently to pinpoint graves found the deepest about one and a half feet beneath the surface. “The rest are just below the turf,” says Russell.
He has also spoken to Al Ernest, a recognized stone restorationist who has spent quite a bit of time working in St. Mark’s Church Cemetery, but he is not an archaeologist, so according to the BAO is not qualified for the work in the Mississagua Street cemetery, where 28 early Black settlers, as yet unnamed, are thought to be buried.
It was Ernest who told him the monuments are most likely marble, which was readily available at the time of the burials, he says.
Russell had planned to make a deputation to council this Monday, but discovered he has to meet with the BAO and town staff.
With the ARA report in hand, and a proposal for Stage 1 and 2 archaeological assessments, a conservation plan that address best-practices for the conservation of the headstones, and associated costs, Russell hopes to set up a meeting with all involved, and have all the necessary approvals in place to allow the work to go ahead next spring.
The cost, if the work continues through the stage 2 assessment, and includes the conservation plan, would total about $60,000, to be paid by the town, as the owner of the cemetery, he says.
So far, he feels he has had the support of the lord mayor and some council members, and many residents as well who have stopped to chat and encourage him when he’s been at the cemetery.
Russell has paid for the ground-penetrating radar himself, at a cost of about $3,000, including expenses.
Until the monuments are unearthed to help provide at least some of the information he is looking for, all he can do is continue his research through old archives and documents, hoping to give names to the people buried in the cemetery.