Group campaigns to save old slave cemetery - January 29, 1997 [External Link]
The St-Armand Slave Cemetery debate made the news line on T.V. on Canada's national station - the CBC. The following is a transcript of the evening news.
Salvaging the Dignity of a Slave Cemetery - February 23, 1997 [External Link]
The following article, on the St-Armand Slave Cemetery, appeared in "Montreal Community Contact", a local paper sponsored by the Black Studies Centre for the Black and Caribbean Community of Montreal.
Slave cemetery stirs controversy
Also appeared on -
The desecration of a slave cemetery:
A long-forgotten slave cemetery on the edge of town has jarred the tranquility of this sleepy Eastern Townships community. Mentioned in archival records as the "St. Armand Negro Burying Ground," the tiny plot of land was unknown to local cemetery caretakers until a black teacher learned last week that human skeletal remains were turning up in a farmer's field. Hank Avery said he'd heard three years ago that slaves had been buried in the area.
In a recent interview, the Grade 3 teacher said he always felt that something should be done to mark the site, "other than referring to it as ‘Nigger Rock,' as it's called locally." Avery said the appellation appears in turn-of-the-century historical records and refers to a huge black cliff overlooking the graves of an unknown number of former slaves.
After feeling "vaguely uneasy" about the unmarked site for three years, the Bedford teacher became outraged when he discovered that bones were being unearthed by farm machinery. "There are only three of us blacks living between Montreal and Sherbrooke," said the former U.S. draft-dodger, "so you tend to notice when something happens that concerns your people."
[His complaints about "grave desecration" to Pierre Paradis, the local member of the National Assembly, were referred to Saint-Armand's town hall, said the Butler Elementary School teacher. "I guess Mr. Paradis didn't want to touch this with a 10-foot pole." But Saint-Armand Mayor Brent Chamberlin didn't wish to get involved either, said Avery. "He's in litigation with the farmer who owns the cemetery, so he felt he shouldn't talk." ]
Avery said a fellow teacher, Dieter Steiche, mentioned hearing about freshly exhumed human bones while looking for the long-overgrown cemetery last fall. At the time, Avery knew that the site had already been bulldozed back in 1950 by Clement Benoit when the Saint-Armand farmer acquired the property, once the domain of Colonel Philip Luke, an original United Empire Loyalist settler.
"What the farmer did 47 years ago was bad enough," said Avery, "but when I heard they were at it again last fall, I couldn't take it any more so I decided to act." Along the way, Avery was joined by Diana Dwyer, an outspoken Cowansville art teacher who describes the situation as "totally appalling."
The slaves arrived in the 1790s with the Luke family, said Dwyer. They were set free and stayed on to work the farm as hired help. In his declining years, Luke is said to have travelled to Florida every winter where he would buy up to eight slaves at a time. Once he was back home, the slaves were freed.
In the 1860s, another group came via the "underground railroad," a clandestine organization that spirited slaves from the U.S. into Canada. An unknown number are believed to have crossed the border at Morse's Line, about two kilometres south of Saint-Armand-Station. "They settled here," said Dwyer, "and there's not even a little place in history for them; it's just not good enough." She heard about the slave cemetery - one of only four in Canada - while searching for her own ancestors.
One cemetery is in Birchtown, a Nova Scotian hamlet outside Shelburne. When Shelburne officials were about to build a new town dump over the burial ground last summer, an outcry by concerned citizens brought the project to a standstill and a bronze historical marker was erected instead. Freed slaves are also believed to have been buried in Priceville, Ont., as well as the southern Ontario town of Dresden, where Josiah Henson lived out his days. Henson is better known as the fictional Uncle Tom who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
[Dwyer said she belongs to a group of Eastern Townships anglophones who enjoy scouring the countryside in summer looking for abandoned graveyards of early English settlers. Her own family settled the area in 1792. "I guess we feel threatened....Touching bases with our roots like that makes us feel that we in fact belong here." She described the bulldozing and the more recent excavations as "typical of the present climate in this province, insofar as people of ethnic origin are concerned." Over the years, old English-speaking areas have been "taken over" by francophones, said Dwyer. "They buy an old English Victorian house and pretend it's their seigneury. It doesn't go down at all well." ]
Rejean Benoit, 45, who owns the old Luke property along with his father, Clement, said his dad had no idea there was a burial ground at the base of the black rock when he levelled a mound of earth in 1950. "How could he know?" asked Benoit in a recent interview. "There were no markers, no stones, nothing but this embankment that interfered with a road he was building to the back of the property."
[When the elder Benoit spotted bones, he asked the local postmaster to have a look. "Human bones," opined the mailman, a Mr. Johnson, whose first name has since vanished from local folklore. "My father buried everything and forgot about it," said the son, who also denied reports circulating in the village that a backhoe was back on the site last fall scooping topsoil to shore up a barn's foundation. "Somebody should tell that Bedford teacher to cool it a little," advised the younger Benoit. "If he feels his people were subjected to a certain amount of disrespect, why doesn't he concentrate his energies on little black children who could benefit a lot more from his services than long-deceased slaves?"]
Asked if he would allow a historical marker to be erected on the site, Benoit replied: "I don't rule it out altogether."
[Michel Lareau, a local historian said that human remains were indeed found last fall but not under the black rock: "I think it was a little further up the road, near the site of an ancient kiln." As far as Avery is concerned, desecration has occurred - even if it turns out that the latest bone fragments didn't come from the lost cemetery. "What matters now," he said, "is that the issue is out in the open."]
"After close to 200 years of being ignored, I think it wouldn't be too much to ask for a little marker for these people who are, after all, part of the area's heritage." He'll launch a fundraising campaign if authorities are unable to help, vowed Avery. The mayor of Saint-Armand-Station told The Gazette he had no idea what to do when the problem landed on his desk at city hall. "I don't even know who I'm supposed to call about this."
[Out of the Ordinary
As far as Chamberlin is concerned, the burial ground should be designated a historical site. "But as a town, our hands are tied; there's nothing in the regulations we can enforce. I mean, this is kind of out of the ordinary." Reg Patterson, an official with the Missisquoi Historical Society in Stanbridge East, said the matter is being studied by the society's cemetery committee, of which he is chairman. "I didn't know about its existence until a few days ago," said Patterson, whose group cares for 19 obsolete cemeteries in Stanbridge Township. He said his committee maintains the Luke cemetery on the same farm, but had no knowledge of the slave burial ground until Avery began making telephone calls. Patterson said it might be possible to erect a plaque marking the spot. "It's hard to know what we can do about it," he added. "It seems most of the damage has already been done."]
Light on a Dark Past:
Also appeared on - See next item below. [Note: Red text only found in original version above.]
Buried beneath racism:
After sounding the alarm over the fate of Saint-Armand-Station's "Negro Burying Ground," a local teacher has turned up two more lost slave cemeteries. His efforts are being hailed by black community leaders for shedding long overdue light on a dark chapter of Canada's past. Hank Avery's two latest finds are on Tibbit's Hill Road, two kilometres west of Knowlton, in the Eastern Townships, and outside the village of Westfield, 25 kilometres north of Saint John, N.B.
The soft-spoken Grade 3 teacher credits the new discoveries to overwhelming support from callers who heard about the estimated 30 slaves buried and forgotten at the foot of a landmark listed in official Quebec registers as "Nigger Rock." Avery, 49, learned three years ago that former slaves had been buried near the rock in Saint-Armand-Station sometime in the 1800s, but he didn't check the reports until last week, when he heard that human remains were found on a farmer's field near a slab of black limestone six metres tall and 30 metres long.
Friday, he happened upon the original marker for the graveyard in a woodpile in nearby Dunham. [Yesterday, he happened upon the original marker for the graveyard in the ruins of a stone barn in nearby Dunham.]
"This shows me the graveyard was officially recognized at one time, and now we have to figure out a way of putting it back and opening a path to allow the public access to the site," he said. Avery lodged a formal complaint of grave "desecration" with local authorities after being told that farmer Clement Benoit scooped fill from the burial ground to shore up a barn last fall. The teacher at Butler Elementary said the freed slaves were apparently laid to rest facing the stone, so that the black slate would serve as a communal tombstone. The last burial is thought to date to about 1909.
The farmer denies ordering recent excavations on the property. "The last time I did anything there was in 1950 when I accidentally put the bulldozer through the cemetery," Benoit, 75, said. Avery says it doesn't really matter if the farmer didn't actually disturb the burial ground last fall, as reported.
"That's not what this is all about," he said. "The point is it has been more than 100 years and the place hasn't been protected and marked. Why wasn't anything done? My reasoning is that it's a matter of respect. Period."
The property once belonged to Colonel Philip Luke, a United Empire Loyalist who settled there in 1781 with his slaves. While there were only 1,132 black slaves in Canada in 1759, their numbers increased considerably after 1783 as the Loyalists brought their slaves with them. Although slavery remained legal in Canada until it was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833, the practice was generally unpopular here, perhaps because it was unsuited to Canadian agriculture, which required fewer hands than southern plantations.
Apart from Avery's three sites, freed slaves are said to have been buried in Birchtown, N.S., as well as at Priceville, Ont. Still more are thought to be in the southern Ontario town of Dresden, where Josiah Henson lived out his days. Henson is better known as the fictional Uncle Tom who inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Avery's cause, launched from his kitchen table after class on Jan. 13, has attracted scores of supporters. "The phone never stops ringing," said Avery, a father of two. "I've guided so many television crews to Nigger Rock in recent days that we've worn a path." "It has been overwhelming. I had no idea people cared this much about the need to officially mark these places." His very first query came from the Boston Globe, said Avery, a former Pennsylvanian who has been teaching in Canada for the past 26 years.
Avery, who believes his own ancestors were slaves on Avery Island off the coast of South Carolina, said he never saw himself heading a civil-rights movement from his Bedford bungalow. One of his admirers, Henry Bishop, curator of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, finds it perfectly normal for slave burial grounds to have gone undetected for more than a century.
["It's no surprise that these cemeteries were long forgotten,"Bishop said from his Halifax office.]
Because of racism and discrimination, Bishop said, black communities in Canada had no choice but to separate their loved ones from mainstream society. Many of the estimated 18,000 to 25,000 freed slaves who settled in Nova Scotia were buried in their back yards, he said, with nothing to mark their graves. He estimates that apart from the Birchtown graveyard, there might be as many as 20 lost burial sites in Nova Scotia.
"Even after they'd managed to flee the United States and even in death, they needed to remain anonymous because survivors were under threat at all times of being detected by slave catchers and shipped back home."
Segregated even in death
Other freed slaves were confined to segregated sections of church cemeteries, where their graves were marked with flimsy wooden crosses that soon fell apart. "Those are all things that have to be revealed,'' Bishop said, because Canadian history is such that these things didn't happen."
[Publicity surrounding Avery's discoveries, he said, was long overdue. He said he hopes it would make Canadians "more aware of hardships that were endured."]
Avery said the Knowlton burial ground, as well as the one in New Brunswick, were brought to his attention by callers who noted that neither is identified.
[A former Maritimer who now lives in Calgary tipped him off about the New Brunswick site, Avery said.]
"I understand that the one in Knowlton has been talked about locally for a long time, but it seems they didn't think enough of its occupants to place a marker." According to Dan Philip, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, most slave burial sites are unknown "because the conditions, the attitudes and the society of the time were such that it was intended that the presence of black people should be erased from the Canadian psyche."
He described Avery's discovery as "certainly timely and opportune," as it comes on the eve of Black History Month, which begins Feb. 1. A period of contemplation, speeches and entertainment, it is designed to reflect on the history and contributions of the black community, Philip said. ["And the type of consciousness aroused by Mr. Avery should definitely be incorporated in Black History Month."]
Philip said an estimated 5,000 blacks settled in Quebec during the 19th century. "Most arrived as freed slaves after Emancipation (U.S. Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863) and they were left to wallow and just die out." This part of Canada's past is expunged from history books, he added. "What Canadians are proud of is that they gave refuge to these people, but the difficulties they encountered are not written in Canadian history." Philip said he knew there had to be slave burial grounds in Quebec, "because slaves eventually died and were buried." But he didn't know where they were located. It was traditional in those days, he said, not to mark graves of blacks with gravestones: "Their presence was just lost in the wind."
[Philip said he plans to meet next week with Avery and other Townshippers "who feel offended that this indifference occurred in their midst."]
Marion Phelps, curator of the Brome County Historical Society in Knowlton, confirmed that two or three unmarked slaves' graves are located on the old James Frizzle farm at Frizzle's Corner near Knowlton."Because we always kept them well documented in our records, we never thought of putting up markers," said Phelps, 88.
She added the slaves were brought to the area by General Roswell Olcott, who settled there in 1805 from Norich, Vermont. [Their presence is mentioned in Ernest Taylor's 1908 History of Brome County, where two of the men are identified as "Prince" and "Frank."]
Phelps said the historical society fully endorses Avery's call for a historical-site marker: "It's under discussion now to locate the graves -- because we don't know where they are precisely -- and then erect a plaque next spring." She said she hoped Avery's campaign would have repercussions on other early Townshippers' graves that are similarly neglected: "Maybe we can include our own pioneers in this movement and collect funds for the upkeep of their burial plots."
Kenneth Frizzle, whose ancestors acquired the property from the Olcotts, said he remembers his father telling him the graves are below a stand of pines near the road. "We've since sold that part of the farm to a Québecois from Montreal, a lawyer, who probably wouldn't oppose some kind of marker on his land."
In Westfield, N.B., Douglas Ricker said the last time he saw the four slaves' graves in the woods behind his homestead was in the late 1940s. "They were freed slaves who built the Campbell Road down here," said Ricker, 81. "I remember the old house they lived in. It had very narrow windows; so narrow you could only get your head through." He recalled seeing mounds of earth, along with some gravestones covered in brambles. "I remember they were called the Watsons, a name they got from a white slave owner in the States."
From his home in Bedford, 85 kilometres southeast of Montreal, Avery reported at week's end that the Missisquoi Historical Society in nearby Stanbridge East had offered to designate the rock at Saint-Armand-Station a historical site. "Now it's just a matter of getting markers placed at the other two sites," he said. Farmer Benoit had no idea an embankment at the foot of the black rock was a burial ground. "I thought it was called Nigger Rock because of its color, which is black."
Benoit said he levelled the mound while building a road to access a stand of prime lumber at the back of his property. He said he is sick and tired of being portrayed as crass and thoughtless: "I was made to feel terrible for this 47 years ago, so I don't see why I should pay for my sins all over again just because somebody claims that somebody else thinks I had a backhoe in there lately." Avery also plans to ask Quebec's Commission de Toponymie to rename the "really offensive Nigger Rock" to a more acceptable "Slave Rock."
[Linda Marcoux, spokesman for the provincial agency that sets place-names, said Nigger Rock appears in the commission's inventory as Rocher Nigger, where it is described under entry No. 175092 as a hill, rather than a rock. The notation states that "in the 18th century, a landowner buried his black slaves there." Once the petition is received, she said, it is studied by the commission, which sends its recommendations along to municipal authorities. She had no idea how long it might take to excise Rocher Nigger from the commission's inventory.]
Bridge the gulf
Daily, a piece of the puzzle that helps to explain the rift between Québecers appears, edifying all of us who wish to bridge the gulf. The article on the unearthing of a slave cemetery at Saint-Armand-Station provided yet another clue to why we must work further to understand one another. Rejean Benoit comments to that Bedford teacher, Hank Avery, to consolidate his efforts on behalf of little black children and forget about the black forefathers who helped settle Saint-Armand was condescending. It was, however, a further hint at the double standard of citizenship held by Mr. Benoit and, I am sad to discover, many other people. Mr. Benoit, la devise québécoise Je me souviens doit s'appliquer tous les membres de notre société.
Pierre E. Drolet
Show respect for those recently
I am writing in response to the article about the slave cemetery in Saint-Armand-Station that was long-forgotten and is now at the centre of controversy because of suspected desecration. I find it ironic that in an age where current funeral and burial customs are more involved in direct dispositions and no funerals, that we concern ourselves with the sacredness of burial sites that are hundreds of years old and in large part forgotten. Many of the same feelings apply to aboriginal communities that are often flooded in the name of development of natural resources.
We seem to be more concerned over the respect shown to those we do not know and lived long before us than to those we bury today. It seems to me that the opposite should be of concern. If we show respect and reverence to places where human remains are interred, should we not offer equal respect to places that are not designated as such?
I am referring to the custom of scattering cremated remains (ashes) in public places. Do we know or want to know the number and quantity of these scattered in our parks, rivers and other locations that are frequented by the public?
Perhaps it takes situations like those referred to in the article to remind us of the sacredness of human remains and the respect with which we should dispose of these.
The Black Coalition of Quebec yesterday assured an Eastern Townships farmer he isn't being targeted because 30 former slaves are buried on his property. During a meeting that got off to a rocky start, coalition president Dan Philip said, ``Nobody is pointing the finger of guilt'' at Clement Benoit over the discovery behind his Victorian brick house of a long-forgotten slave cemetery.
Although its presence had been known locally for years, the so-called "Saint-Armand-Station Negro Burying Ground" came to sudden prominence this month when a teacher in the area began investigating reports that human remains recently had been unearthed by farm machinery. The probe launched by Hank Avery, a Grade 3 teacher at Bedford's Butler Elementary School, caught Philip's attention. Yesterday, the Black Coalition leader decided to visit the burial site - a 60-metre-long slab of black limestone that is known locally as "Nigger Rock."
Avery, who left his class for a brief chat with Philip, was unable to attend the farmhouse meeting. Philip's arrival appeared to catch the Benoit household by surprise. With three camera crews in tow, Philip and four coalition members attempted to speak to one of the farmer's sons, Rejean Benoit. But Philip was curtly rebuffed by the man as he left his house and headed for his car. "I'm sorry," the younger Benoit said, "but we weren't expecting you."
He squeezed past Philip and delegation members, who included sociologist Yao Allah from the Ivory Coast and Montreal black historian Dorothy Williams. Benoit then got into his car and sped off. After his son had left, the elder Benoit agreed to meet Philip alone in his kitchen. "They've been up here taking pictures for three weeks," thundered the 71-year-old farmer as he chased photographers off his front porch. In the end, he allowed a Gazette and a CBC reporter to witness the encounter.
The Benoits have complained of being unfairly portrayed as villains for "desecrating" the burial ground. They deny rumors to the effect that landfill containing human bones was scooped from the site last fall. Philip told the elder Benoit he can understand his concerns. "You probably know of others around here who had slaves buried on their property and you feel yours is the only one that is being targeted." Philip said the coalition's sole interest in the matter is to have the former cemetery protected and identified as a historic site. "We're not looking at it as being anyone's fault or looking for those who might be guilty."
He described slavery as a "question of the times."The slaves were brought to Saint-Armand Station in the 1780s by Philip Luke, a United Empire Loyalist who settled there from the United States. At one point during yesterday's session, Philip appeared close to being tossed out into the cold winter morning himself when he raised the possibility of inviting Quebec cabinet minister Louise Beaudoin to the black rock.
"Our next step," Philip said, "is to have Quebec's minister of cultural affairs come out to the farm with her officials." He said the visit might spur Quebec to declare the site a historic monument. "Politicians?" hissed the farmer, his eyes narrowing. "We don't need politicians in this." But Philip said all the coalition wants is official recognition for contributions made to society by blacks, especially those who escaped slavery.
"I can assure you none of this will affect you," Philip said. "I wouldn't like anyone to be disadvantaged by something that happened 150 years ago." The farmer declared himself "110 per cent" behind coalition efforts to highlight black contributions to society.
"But I think to get the full picture you should ask all the oldtimers who live along the U.S. border down the road here and see how many of them have these burial grounds behind their houses."
An Eastern Townships teacher has recruited the help of a town council and a historical society in his campaign to save a forgotten slave cemetery.
Hank Avery, a Grade 3 teacher at Bedford's Butler Elementary School, says a formal offer of support has been made by the Missisquoi Historical Society and the municipality of Saint-Armand Station, where 30 former slaves were buried 200 years ago in the town's so-called ``Negro Burying Ground.''
In an interview from his Bedford home yesterday, Avery also said he had a meeting with the 71-year-old man who owns the land on which the unmarked cemetery is located. The talks were aimed at obtaining farmer Clement Benoit's backing for plans to erect a monument and to allow visitors on the site.
The meeting at Benoit's farmhouse was attended by Avery, area historian Michel Lareau and Reg Patterson, chairman of the cemetery committee of the Missisquoi Historical Society in Stanbridge East.
"We worked out a deal of sorts," Avery said, "because Mr. Benoit wouldn't say yes and he wouldn't say no to the idea of letting us put up a marker." The farmer also warned the delegation that, if he eventually allows visitors to the site, they'll have to park in his driveway.
"He wants to be able to keep an eye on who comes and goes, rather than having people walk in from another part of the farm." Benoit said in a recent interview that he is "interested in history just as much as the next guy," but he wants to reflect on the situation at greater length before endorsing the project.
Patterson said in an interview following the meeting that the Missisquoi Historical Society, of which he is a board member, supports Avery's campaign to press Quebec's Cultural Affairs Department to declare the burial ground a historical site.
But he said the society has yet to determine how it will deal with another of Avery's concerns, a request that the site's name be changed from "Nigger Rock" to "Slave Rock." The 60-metre-long slab of black limestone is listed in government topographical maps under its derogatory designation. It refers to a burial spot for slaves brought to Canada in the late 1700s by Colonel Philip Luke, one of the area's original United Empire Loyalist settlers.
Avery's campaign to protect the long over-grown cemetery began last month after he was told that human remains were being dug up on the site. According to Patterson, reports of recent excavations have proved erroneous.
"We're satisfied that nobody worked there last fall, as was previously thought, but that doesn't mean we're not interested in doing everything we can to have the place declared a historic site." As for the name change, Patterson was non-committal: "Nigger Rock is not a very nice name, that's for sure, but it's historical and it's in the records." He said that, perhaps "down the road," a name change might be feasible.
Avery said he attended last Monday's council meeting in Saint-Armand-Station and " told councillors that, judging from the historical records showing that this place really exists, and, due to the fact that it keeps coming up, it's a safe bet that something is not settled." The teacher said council approved his suggestion that a special committee be formed to team up with the Missisquoi Historical Society and seek historical-site status from Louise Beaudoin, Quebec's cultural-affairs minister.
"I told them there's a process to make this thing move forward," Avery said, "because one person alone can't do it. They're small steps, but there is progress." In Saint-Armand-Station, Mayor Brent Chamberlin said yesterday that the town will write Beaudoin a letter within the next two weeks.
"In it, the (town's) urbanization and planning committee will state that, yes, this site should be known as a historical location because of all the evidence we have." He expects a positive reply, "because the site has been known around here for so many years. Nobody can very well dispute its historical significance."
Recognizing the past:
Another Black History Month has come and gone. Usually I'm pretty cynical about its long-term effects. But perhaps the initiatives taken by the black community are starting to have some impact on government institutions that are beginning to respond by acknowledging the historical presence of blacks in Quebec.
Black History Month as traditionally celebrated in Montreal has been, for the most part, a series of transitory and disjointed cultural events lacking any enduring quality that says, ``We exist, we have a long, rich and varied history here.''
However, some new developments in terms of establishing a concrete historical presence recognizing the significance of black contributions to Canadian history surfaced during this year's Black History Month.
Coming on the eve of Black History Month came the rediscovery of ``Nigger Rock,'' a communal tombstone marking the site of the many nameless black slaves buried beneath the rolling hills of Saint-Armand Station. ``Nigger Rock'' marked the spot where slaves were denied their humanity, treated as objects or chattel, and buried without even a proper marking. The resurfacing of this cemetery challenges the assumptions of many Quebecers that there was not a black presence in Quebec prior to the recent waves of immigrants from the Caribbean. It also debunks the myth of Canada being a safe haven to blacks seeking refuge from slavery.
It seems that both French and English historians charged with keeping the historical record have buried the history of black slavery in Canada. One French-Canadian historian, Francois Xavier Garneau, has recast the past to blame slavery on the English, while anglophone historians John Nielson and Thomas Casey have put the onus on the French. For the most part, the subject of slavery seems to have been an embarrassment to Canadian historians and thus not worthy of recording.
``Nigger Rock'' surfaced twice before - there was an article about it in 1950 and another in 1979. But each time the slaves were re-buried only to surface like an old wound. Bedford school teacher Hank Avery, who brought the site to the public's attention, does not want the issue to be buried again. He wants this aspect of black history to be documented and the grave made a permanent historical site. Avery hopes that his campaign will result in the restoration of the graveyard's significance in the history of Quebec and of Canada, and that the public will be given access to the site.
Perhaps this initiative will forever close this debate on Canada's role of complicity in the abominable institution and, at the same time, document the historical presence of blacks in Quebec and Canada.
Another noteworthy event occurred Feb. 14, a day that marked the 80th anniversary of Marcus Garvey's visit to Montreal and the 90th anniversary of the Union United Church. The Centre For Research Action and Race Relations has put forward a proposal to erect two monuments in recognition of the historical contribution of the black community to Montreal's development and heritage.
``Black Montrealers have deep roots in this city but these roots are not evident or recognizable in the urban landscape of Montreal - the cultural, technological heart of Quebec and Canada's second largest city,'' CRARR's executive director, Fo Niemi, said at a recent inaugural ceremony at the Union United Church. The ceremony celebrated the contribution of the black railway porters who stood up against discrimination, hardship and abuse so that the present and future generations could lead better lives with equality and dignity.
One of the monuments would be erected in one of Montreal's public squares; the other, a work of art, would be installed in Central Station to commemorate the contributions of black porters and railway employees to the Canadian rail service Streets and Parks.
CRARR also gave out a list of names of streets and parks that commemorate individuals in the black community: Avenue Olivier Lejeune, named after the first recorded black slave in Canada; Croissant Harriet Tubman, named in honor of her work on the underground railroad; Parc des Jazzmen, in honor of jazz greats like Oscar Peterson, Oliver Jones, Nelson Symmonds, Paul Bley, Wray Downes and Sonny Grenwich; Parc Herb Trawick, a contemporary of Jackie Robinson who was the first black to play football for the Montreal Alouettes; Place Charles Este named after the reverend of Union United Church; Rue Mathieu de Costa, interpreter for Samuel de Champlain. The list goes on.
The idea of institutional recognition is an issue that is also being addressed by the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada, which has decided to erect a plaque at Windsor Station to commemorate the black railway porters. According to the minutes of a meeting of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, ``the railway porters broke new ground by gaining recognition for blacks in labor relations and by making important contributions to the human-rights movement in Canada after the Second World War, particularly through their struggle to end discrimination in railway employment.''
To be included in the dominant culture's history we need to have institutional landmarks that document our presence here. Questions such as the location of the Eastern Townships sites used in the underground railroad need to be acknowledged in concrete ways by being mapped and preserved.
Committing our research to text and then filing it in some forgotten archives allows the dominant culture's writers of history to keep us marginalized. Although talks and texts are useful tools they are not sufficient. Black history must be made visible for all to see.
Proposal that town build slave-cemetery
monument is shouted down
The town council of Saint-Armand has run into stiff opposition as it tries to decide whether to declare a 200-year-old slave cemetery a historic site.A council meeting this month, called to discuss the recommendations of a council-appointed committee, ended in a shouting match, committee-member Barry Chamberlin said.
The issue first arose five months ago, when local Grade 3 teacher Hank Avery investigated reports that farmer Clement Benoit had unearthed human remains while digging on his Eastern Townships farm. Avery began campaigning to have the burial grounds of black slaves recognized. The committee recommended that the town declare the area a historic site. But its report didn't get read at the meeting before the shouting started.
Chamberlin said the committee wants the town to obtain a right of way onto the property, to secure access for visitors. The Benoit family doesn't want a monument on their land. Local residents had known for years about the ``Saint-Armand-Station Burying Ground'' on the Benoit farm, which is marked by a 60-metre-long black slab of limestone that used to be known as "Nigger Rock." The property once belonged to a United Empire Loyalist, Colonel Philip Luke, who settled the land with his slaves in 1789.
The result of last Monday's council meeting hasn't discouraged Avery. "I'm hoping that reason will prevail," Avery said. "We're not asking for a tremendous piece of land. We just want to pay homage to these people buried there."
Council passes on slave grave:
Saint-Armand West - An effort to protect an unmarked grave where as many as 30 slaves are believed to be buried was stopped in its tracks this week by officials in this small town, 50 kilometres south of Montreal.
On Monday, Saint-Armand West councillors voted down a recommendation to recognize the historical value of an outcrop, commonly known as Nigger Rock, located on farmland once owned ...
[This article is currently being updated]
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."
Slaves' Champion Honoured
Hank Averv's six-year struggle to get official recognition of a slaves' cemetery in the Eastern Townships is over. Last night, he was honoured for his work and got some good news. The Centre for Research Action on Race Relations paid tribute to Avery or his efforts to protect an unmarked burial ground, believed to be Canada's only slaves' cemetery in Saint-Armand - an Eastern Townships town near the U.S. border 50 kilometers south of Montreal. The elementary-school teacher first visited the burial ground in 1996 and was outraged when he realized there were no markers on it. During a ceremony at a downtown hotel last night, Avery was presented with the Frederick Johnson Award, named for the black Montrealer who won an 1898 court challenge against racial discrimination in public establishments. The dinner was attended Congressman John Conyers.
Avery campaigned to have the burial ground protected as a historical site and, as he learned yesterday his efforts have finally produced results. On Monday Saint-Armand council passed a resolution that amounts to a commitment to thoroughly examine the histo-ry of blacks who lived in the area during the 18th and 19th centuries. Saint-Armand Mayor Brent Chamberlin attended the award ceremony He said that while few people in the municipality have ever doubted the existence of the slaves' cemetery, as it remains a delicate issue in Saint-Armand. I see (the resolution) as an important first step."
"It is an official start," said Dominic Soulie of the Centre Historique des Frontieres, a committee of people who share an interest in the burial ground and other points of historical interest. Soulie lobbied six months for the resolution and described it as a first step toward a historical marker. He presented Avery with a framed copy of the resolution. "He said he wouldn't believe it until he saw a signed document, and we got it," Soulie said before the ceremony Avery seemed touched when presented with the document. Tears came to his eyes and he made a gesture toward Mance Bacon, a member of the Centre Historique group.
The owners of the farm on which the burial ground is located have been unreceptive to the idea of an archeological dig, a required step in having the province protect it. A relative of the owners has a seat on the town council and he voted against the resolution. The land was once owned by Philip Luke, a United Empire Loyalist who moved from Albany N.Y, to Lower Canada in 1784. It is believed Luke brought with him six black slaves and that they and as many as 19 others, were eventually buried next to a 60 metre-long black slab of limestone referenced in provincial topographic records by the derogatory name "Nigger Rock."
The cemetery is mentioned in historical essays and newspaper articles published during the early 1900s. Recent research, commissioned by the provin-cial government after Avery voiced his outrage, produced convincing arguments that slaves are buried there.
"I am here as a speaker for the dead. I am here to speak for those who no longer have a voice," Avery said last night. "These people truly lived lives of quiet desperation. They arrived and died in bondage. This small piece of soil in Saint-Armand is the most unique discovered so far in all of Canada."
Roland Viau, a Universite de Montreal anthropologist, researched the burial site for Quebec in 1998 and remains interested in its historical value. Viau just completed a French-language book on the subject.
Viau said he was disappointed to learn a legal record of Luke inheriting slaves from his mother was probably destroyed by a flood near the end of the 19th century But he said his research uncovered an interesting 1851 census of the population in the Missisquoi region."There were more blacks (about 280) living in the region than Abenaki (260) at the time," Viau said. "Many of them must be descendants of those slaves."
The Underground Railroad A Canadian Perspective on Slavery ©2005 | Design: G. Scardera | e-mail