Gravestones of forgotten slaves discovered in Victoria Lawn Cemetery

Adam Montgomery left and Alan Ernest

Adam Montgomery and Alan Ernest think they may have located the gravestone of one of nearly 80,000 people in the Victoria Lawn Cemetery in St. Catharines. The graveyard was established in 1856.

Montgomery and Ernest are part of the Salem Chapel Underground Railroad Cemetery project, which searches for the forgotten graves of former slaves who fled the United States in the 19th century.

Bush points out a gravestone that belongs to Mary Hutchinson, who was enslaved in Maryland before eventually escaping to Canada with her husband William. Once settled in St. Catharines, they worked with Harriet Tubman – the famous abolitionist who was a key figure in the underground railroad – as part of Tubman’s Fugitive Aid Society of St. Catharines.

The story of Mary Hutchinson’s heroic life is just one example of what Bush has spent years trying to recover through her project.

Bush believes there are about 50 former slaves buried in the Victoria Lawn Cemetery whose gravestones have been lost. The team, solely funded by a Go Fund Me page, plans to uncover as many as they can.

One of the things that might surprise people with my involvement in this project is the way I look – I’m white,” Montgomery said. “On my mom’s side we have Armenian ancestors. On the other side we have African-American ancestors. So I think our family might be a good example of how people might not always look like you expect them to.”

Rochelle Bush

Montgomery explains there’s a reason beyond his personal connection for why the cemetery project matters to him. He says that even though the freedom-seekers died generations ago, their stories are relevant today.

“A lot of the same questions that have been dealt with throughout time are still dealt with today. Things like prejudice, things like how do we deal with someone who is different than us, whether it’s race, religion, and how do we learn to live together, and all these kinds of big questions,” Montgomery said.

Once all the graves of all the former slaves are found and repaired and put back up, the team hopes to create the first Underground Railway Cemetery walking tour in the country.