Townships' slave cemetery unique in Canada
[Photo is being restored ]
Schoolteacher Hank Avery, one of a few blacks who live near Saint-Armand, is the driving force behind having the cemetery properly recognized for its significant historical value. He is shown here in a 1997 photo. [Photo:Gordon Beck, Gazette]
A study commissioned by the provincial government has produced the strongest indications yet that black slaves are buried in an unmarked cemetery on a farm in the Eastern Townships.
Its author, Universite de Montreal anthropologist Roland Viau, is convinced the remains of between six and 25 slaves are buried on a private farm in Saint-Armand, a town 50 kilometres south of Montreal.
"I have already worked on the issue of slavery (in Lower Canada) but I found (the cemetery) to be fantastic, completely unique. Without a doubt it is unique. We will not find another like it," the anthropologist said in an interview.
In his recommendations to the minister of culture and communications, Viau suggested the site has significant historical value as the only slave cemetery known to exist in Canada. There is a similar one in Nova Scotia but it is a burial ground for freed slaves who escaped the United States.
The story of Nigger Rock - the burial site is next to a 60-metre-long black slab of limestone officially referenced in Quebec Toponymy Commission records by the derogatory name - has lived on in the local lore of the region but was never properly recognized as a burial ground. Mentions of the cemetery can be found in local historical essays and various newspaper articles published since 1910.
Viau's report indicates Philip Luke - a man who moved from Albany, N.Y., to Lower Canada in 1784 and became a wealthy industrialist as well as a United Empire Loyalist colonel - and later his son, Jacob, used black slaves to convert tree branches and leaves into a product used to whiten newsprint.
"The case of black slaves of Saint-Armand demonstrates that blacks who were placed in servitude in Lower Canada did not all work as domestics but also as agricultural workers and were exploited as a work force," wrote Viau, who has published two books about ancient Iroquois society, including one launched this week.
Unlike the Luke family cemetery - located on the same farmland now owned by members of the Benoit family in Saint-Armand - this is no indication slaves are buried there. The Benoit family has contended that protecting the cemetery is a government responsibility.
Viau advised the minister to conduct an "archeological intervention" at the site as soon as possible to protect it. "While there is documented research to be completed, I guarantee that if I went there with an archeologist we would find something," Viau said. "With people living in an area for possibly 30 years, there has to be some sign of their existence. Human beings throw away too much for there not to be."
Bernard Hebert, a researcher for the provincial minister's office based in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, said the government has not given up on protecting the potential cemetery but it currently has no funding for further research. The research that remains is estimated at $10,000.
"Like all government offices we have had to cut our budgets drastically and we have run out of money to continue. The project does interest us but right now we can't continue," Hebert said. He added that after Viau's report was filed, government representatives approached the Benoit family about the possibility of an archeological dig. "They have not been receptive but they haven't ruled out the idea altogether," Hebert said. "It absolutely requires the approval of the landowner. If we want to do archeological work to find the foundation of a house, or a former cemetery, we need their approval."
Although he is the driving force behind having the cemetery properly recognized, Hank Avery, an elementary schoolteacher and one of a few blacks who live near Saint-Armand, was never issued a copy of the report from the government. It was filed quietly at the Missisquoi County Historical Society until Martin Duckworth, a documentary filmmaker working on a project about the slave cemetery, recently stumbled upon it and informed Avery.
"When I read it, I was amazed. It confirmed a lot of things we had already heard. Mr. Viau knows how to research in a way that I would never have thought of," said Avery, who wants a simple plaque and a cross placed at the cemetery. Included in Viau's report are the following key elements:
Philip Luke's last will and testament. The last paragraph, which was only transcribed after Viau filed his report, reads: "Notwithstanding and I do further direct that Harry the Negro boy who is now living with (us) shall be furnished by my estate with one shirt of everyday clothes and one shirt of Sunday clothes when he arrives at the age of 21 years should he continue with my family with that time faithful in their service."
An 1825 census of Bedford County recorded at least 10 people living on the property of Jacob Luke - Philip Luke's son - who could not possibly have been his children when you consider he was only married for a few years before his wife died. "Unless he married a widow who had a lot of children, it is very unusual," Viau said.
A 1792 inventory of the property owned by an Albany woman named Geesie Luke - Viau found proof confirming she was Philip Luke's mother after he filed the report - proves the family in Albany owned six slaves before she died.
What remains to be determined is where those slaves went, and Viau is certain documents can be found in records kept in Albany. Slavery was outlawed in New York in 1808. Viau filed the report to the minister in 1998 and almost nothing has happened on the government's part since. Under the provincial Cultural Property Act, the government has provisions allowing it to "ensure control or maintenance of heritage collections or property, while respecting the basic rights of the individuals who own the property in question or make use of it, as well as the jurisdictions and responsibilities of the municipalities involved."
Viau acknowledges that more research is necessary before the government can work to protect the cemetery. "Personally, I am absolutely convinced there is something there," Viau said. "Even when I filed my report in 1998, I was convinced that not only was there a cemetery - where there are between six and 25 slaves buried - but that there was a house for them on the site."
To protect the site the government would need more proof than Philip Luke's reference to the young black male in his will, Hebert added. "In my point of view, it is a very probable ndication - but not necessarily proof - that Philip Luke owned slaves. He writes of a young black man, but there is no mention that he is a slave. I will say it is a significant and interesting indication.
"I have the impression people were discreet about owning slaves at the time and that appears to be the problem in our research for documents." He was referring to the fact slave ownership was debated by Canadian governments between 1790 and 1833 and therefore official records were rarely kept. "That is what is missing - proof that Philip Luke received slaves. We need proof that does not leave much doubt. We're almost there. I believe we know what we're looking for and where to find it."
Avery said he is optimistic further research will prove Luke owned slaves but he is skeptical of the way the government has handled its end. Viau's study was commissioned after Avery began a public campaign in 1997, beginning with an interview with The Gazette. The story sparked widespread attention from media, including newspapers across Canada and the United States. "People have had this report in their possession for almost a year. (Duckworth) stumbled on it. Why would people not tell me about it? I did not get a copy and no one has ever explained that to me," Avery said.
The schoolteacher said he is grateful for the help of such people as Duckworth and John Leblanc, a Montreal investment counselor and amateur historian. Leblanc, who has worked with Avery since the beginning, said Viau's report has opened several new doors. "We're eventually going to go to Albany for research. It's just a matter of time and money," Leblanc said, adding he will attempt to find other archived references to the "Harry" mentioned in Philip Luke's will.
He also found colour photographs of a 1972 visit to the former Luke farm by Edward Luke, the last male descendent of the Luke family. Pictured with him is Roy States, a Montrealer interested in black history, who visited the site based on the oral evidence that has survived for decades. Leblanc is trying to track down another man in the photograph who tape-recorded an interview with Luke about his family.
Another photograph taken at the same time indicates evidence of a small house at another end of the farmland, which Viau believes was used as the slaves' dwelling. Avery met on Monday night with one of the current landowners and Brent Chamberlin, mayor of Saint-Armand.
The mayor said the informal get-together was positive, a sharp contrast to past meetings or discussions to protect the cemetery, which accomplished nothing. Chamberlin said he is considering making a proposal to the Saint-Armand council on the cemetery but wouldn't elaborate. At a 1997 council meeting, Avery's efforts to have the municipality declare the site unique were rebuffed. For Avery, official recognition of the cemetery cannot come soon enough.
"Sometimes I wonder why I am saddled with this and ask myself why can't I just let this go. I'm tired of the stress and I wish I could let it go. But then I get slapped to my senses and I realize that if I don't do it nobody will."
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