Toronto Filmmaker James Russell on a mission to restore Negro Burial Ground

Says the Bereavement Authority of Ontario and Niagara-on-the-Lake should pay for the restoration

By Lincoln DePradine

James Russell protest

James Russell, a Toronto filmmaker, is a man on a mission. He wants more reverence to be shown to the Black people, whose final resting place is at the “Negro Burial Ground” on Mississauga Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Russell, 76, has chained himself to a sign at the burial site and pledged himself to continuing a campaign to bring awareness to the early Black settlers who lived in the area and were interred there after death.

“This is really my last ditch effort to restore dignity to the folks buried here, who have been rendered anonymous by the town,” said Russell.

James Russell

“There are people buried here who had lives and stories. Their descendants can never visit and learn their stories because their ancestors have been rendered anonymous.”

In the mid-1800s, a Baptist church stood on the Mississauga Street property. However, the church was relocated while the burial ground remained, with only three headstones remaining above the ground.

Russell believes the headstones were buried by workers in the 1970s, so they could more easily cut the grass.

In May, 28 graves and 19 buried headstones were detected during a ground-penetrating radar survey that Russell obtained permission from the town to conduct, and personally paid $2,400 for, in order to determine how many people were buried and where.

“What the town says is that they laid them down and over the years, dirt covered them, and then grass covered them, which is absurd,” said Russell. “There’s no way a two-inch thick limestone headstone — which is what Black folks used and could afford in the 1800s — will sink a foot and a half deep into thick clay.”

Russell wants the burial site excavated and the headstones cleaned. It’s an expensive venture that Russell thinks should be paid for by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario and Niagara-on-the-Lake officials.

“I’m not giving up,” Russell said, reiterating his determination to ensure “respect’’ is shown to the dead at the Negro Burial Ground.