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The Unsung Cemetery: Niagara-on-the-Lake's Negro Burial Ground

Niagara-on-the-L ake’s Negro Burial Ground

By Andrew Hind

As one of Ontario’s oldest communities, it should come as little surprise that Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to its share of historic cemeteries where generation upon generation has been laid to rest. One of the more overlooked is the Negro Burial Ground, a cemetery whose history and significance deserves greater attention.

For almost as long as Niagara-on-the-Lake has existed the community has had a black populace, small perhaps, but important to the town’s character, nonetheless.

Between the late 18th and mid-19th century, a slow but steady trickle of blacks from the United States settled there. Some were enslaved individuals who were brought by Loyalists fleeing America after the colonies had won their independence (there were, many would be surprised to learn, at least 80 enslaved men, women, and children living in Niagara-on-the-Lake as late as the 1820s). Some were loyalists themselves, men who had taken up arms in the name of King and Country. And, after Britain passed the Anti-Slavery Act in 1793, others were fugitive slaves seeking asylum.

The early black settlers formed an ethnic enclave within Niagara-on-the-Lake located south of William Street and bordered by King and Butlers streets. At its peak, around 200 people called the ‘Colored Village’ home.

Most blacks identified as Baptist, but for the first few decades of the village’s history there was no dedicated

Baptist house of worship. By 1829, the Niagara Baptist community – white and black - had grown large enough that members became increasingly vocal about building a meeting house. The campaign was led by John Oakley.

English-born John Oakley was a soldier who arrived in 1814 to take part in the final campaigns of the War of 1812. An educated man, he served as Quartermaster at Fort George until 1824. When Oakley left the army, he became a teacher and, eventually, a Baptist preacher.

Oakley was instrumental in raising funds to build the Baptist church. A property was purchased on the east side of Mississauga Street just south of Mary Street, and a church was built upon it in 1831. Oakley proudly led the first sermon within on June 28.

The Baptist congregation was a mix of white and black worshippers, though the former outnumbered the former by 2-to-1. There was some tension within the congregation, almost certainly racially oriented, causing a facture that led most of the white parishioners to follow Oakley when he founded another Baptist Church in Virgil in 1845.

The first black minister was Reverend Francis Lacy, a blacksmith, who led the faithful from 1849-1856. It was during this period that the church began to be referred to as the ‘Coloured’ Baptist Church. During his time as minister, Lacy was a tireless promoter of Niagara’s black community. Sadly, it was a community in retreat. By 1861, the black population of Niagara-on-the-Lake was down to 166, and church membership stood at only 17. A decade later there were only 88 blacks in the community, and only 10 worshipped at the Baptist Church. It was inevitable that one day soon the church would close. Everyone saw the writing on the wall. That sad day came in 1878. Bereft of worshippers, the church was moved and ended its days as a storage shed.

Left behind was the church graveyard where at least 15 bodies were interred. Two of the burials harken back to one of the darker episodes in Niagara-on-the-Lake history.

In the spring of 1837, black slave Solomon Moseby stole his enslaver’s horse and fled to Canada, where he sought refuge among Niagara-on-the-Lake’s black community. Exultation turned to despair when, a few weeks later, Moseby’s enslaver arrived with an arrest warrant and extradition papers.

Moseby was detained in jail until his fate could be decided. The black community mobilized, and over 200 people, from Niagara-on-the-Lake and beyond, camped outside the jail to protest Moseby’s possible return to slavery. Some cried, others were enraged when the extradition was ordered. When authorities attempted to remove Moseby from jail, the protest turned violent and two Niagara-on-the-Lake residents, Herbert Holmes and Jacob Green, were killed in the scuffle. Both were buried in the Baptist burial ground. And what of Moseby? He escaped, fled to England for a time, and later returned to live in Niagara.

The passage of time wasn’t kind to the burial ground where Holmes and Green were solemnly laid to rest. After the church closed its graveyard was neglected. Weeds grew unhindered. Shrubs and trees began to take root. Headstones first leaned wearily, then toppled. Some stones, local lore suggest, were even stolen for uses in home foundations.

Finally, in the 1950s, people began to take note of the historic cemetery. A plaque was erected in 1957 and, for the first time in decades, some care was lavished on the grounds. The graveyard was reclaimed from nature. But by then it was nearly too late. Only three headstones remained – and, thankfully, remain today.

One headstone belongs to little Susan Oakley, the daughter of Reverend Oakley, who died at the tender age of two. Another belongs to escaped slave George Wesley, who fled Kentucky with his family and died in 1893 after having enjoyed decades of freedom. His home still stands at 519 Mississauga Street, right across from the cemetery. The final stone belongs to Wesley’s son, George D. He was only 21 years old.

The name of the others buried here, and the locations where they rest, are lost. But maybe not for long. Attempts are being made to lift the veil of mystery surrounding the cemetery. Recently, ground penetrating radar has suggested there may in fact be 28 graves. Efforts are being made to identify all of those buried on site and to erect headstones for each. Only then will more than a century of indignity be corrected.

The Negro Burial Ground (perhaps soon to be renamed Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground on a new plaque to be installed by the Ontario Heritage Fund), even with only three headstones, serves to remind us of Niagara-on-theLake’s once significant black community and of the church where many worshipped. It’s a solemn place, a place that reflects not only piety but also identity.

Burial Ground Location:

Mississauga Street, just north of John Street, NOTL