Society

Black Cemeteries Force Us to Re-examine Our History With Slavery

How we treat the dead tells a disturbing story about Canada’s racism

BY

Illustration by Sébastien Thibault


In the little town of Saint-Armand, Quebec, near the border with Vermont, there is, according to oral history, a cemetery known as Nigger Rock. Marked only by a black boulder about 300 metres wide, the cemetery was used by free and enslaved blacks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and sits on land that was then owned by a Loyalist officer. According to common knowledge, black men, women, and children had been forced to move northward to Saint-Armand with their owners after the American Revolution, which ended in 1783. If they had marked their graves, it would likely have been with wood instead of stone, so any evidence of the site has deteriorated over time. Today, the land where the bodies are known to be buried is privately owned by a Québécois family, as it has been for decades—and it is still being farmed.

In early 2010, I visited the site with a group from a Montreal conference about art and economies of exploitation. Our intention was to gather around the boulder to pay our respects to the people who were buried near it, including the enslaved blacks who lived on what is now Canadian soil. But the owners of the property at the time wouldn’t let us step onto their land; instead, with a neighbour’s permission, we hiked across an adjacent field and stared at the boulder’s face across the boundary. Just then, the cemetery’s landowners drove a truck right in front of our congregation, temporarily obstructing our view. Later that day, we visited a cave where fugitives had once hidden to avoid recapture into slavery, and I remember having to climb around branches that had been placed on the path to prevent cows from wandering away. Both voluntarily and accidentally, locals had thwarted our efforts to commemorate regional black history—and, since there was no official acknowledgment of the two locations, only a rock and a cave that we knew to be historically significant, we had no recourse to protest their actions.

Though it is almost never discussed, the separation of black and white bodies in death has a long history in the Americas. Centuries-old black cemeteries, such as the one in Saint-Armand, have long been overlooked or disrespected. Another example exists in Priceville, Ontario. An influx of white immigrants pushed out the town’s free black community in the nineteenth century, even though some of the black settlers had originally been promised land and deeds. But, when people are forced to flee, the graves of their loved ones are left behind. According to Speakers for the Dead, a 2000 documentary by filmmakers Jennifer Holness and David Sutherland, Priceville’s black cemetery, like Nigger Rock, was eventually taken over by a private resident and subjected to desecration. Bill Reid, the land’s past owner, was accused in the documentary of removing tombstones from the graveyard and reducing some to rubble, which he used to pave the floor of his stable.

It’s impossible to know how many other black cemeteries exist across Canada. But it is fair to assume that they can be found in Newfoundland, PEI, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario: every region of Canada that once participated in transatlantic slavery. The sites existed outside of government sanction—and so were denied the civic acknowledgements and protections that were standard for white cemeteries. This lack of recognition has had several consequences, not least of which is the Canadian population’s overall ignorance of the extent of our country’s history of slavery; few of us learned more in school than the inevitable congratulatory lecture about Canadians’ role in the Underground Railroad—the covert network of abolitionists that helped enslaved blacks escape north.

In recent months, the question of whether public monuments to those who supported slavery—mainly white Confederate soldiers, sympathizers, and politicians—has sparked protest and even, in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, violence. It has led to heated debates about the nature of history, how to commemorate it, and how to reckon with it. In this context, black cemeteries provide a fresh opportunity to consider and acknowledge difficult and complex histories.

North American landscapes are spotted with monuments to a time, just a few centuries ago, when slavery was considered justified. Many statues and plaques celebrate colonizers and slave owners—such as, in Montreal, James McGill and Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve. Over the past couple of years, activists, academics, and politicians have increasingly questioned the necessity and validity of these tributes. In January, after months of tense deliberation, Halifax’s city council voted to take down a bronze statue of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of the city, who, in 1749, declared a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq people. There have been similar arguments in the United States about the removal of Confederate monuments. On the one hand, these statues are offensive reminders of historical oppression, and they are actively used as talismans by white-supremacist groups in North America; on the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge our complicated past. Histories, particularly ugly ones, must be reckoned with.

Neglected black cemeteries offer another material trace of the past. Instead of building statues of the men who supported slavery, why not redirect our attention to the people who suffered from and resisted it? The commemoration of black graveyards might allow us to remember history in a more inclusive way, one that could be used to educate and heal. Treating them as historical monuments would afford us the opportunity to find new answers to old questions about our relationship to a deeply colonial national history.

It’s impossible to know how many African people were transported between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries to land that is now part of Canada, though we do know that slavery existed here until it was abolished in 1834. There is a general lack of scholarship on slavery in the region: important primary sources (such as the manifests of merchant ships that transported enslaved people from the Caribbean to Montreal and Halifax) have never been located, and there was no uniform system of taxation that would have forced owners to tally the people they enslaved. But we do know, more generally, that up to 15 million Africans were brought to the Americas over 400 years. Enslaved populations in Canada were smaller than in tropical regions because the temperate climate could not sustain a year-round agricultural economy. While some were born in the regions that would become Canada, others arrived from more southern locations, and still others came as “cargo” on merchant ships, transported alongside slave-produced goods, including rum, molasses, and sugar. Composed of African Canadian, African American, African Caribbean, African, and Indigenous people, this culturally complex enslaved population spoke a wide variety of European, African, and Indigenous languages, and they were often unable to communicate with one another.

Enslaved people in Canada, especially Indigenous people, suffered from European diseases, such as smallpox, and were the targets of corporal punishment, such as whippings. The brutally cold winters resulted in frostbite and the loss of digits. Owners also extracted all manner of physical labour from their human “property,” who were commonly employed as farm labourers but also sometimes expected to perform household duties, including cooking, cleaning, and serving at table. Black men tended to become skilled tradesmen, while women made clothing, cared for their owners’ children, and were sometimes forced to become wet nurses. Even though some enslaved people who arrived in Canada became free, they would often take on paid work of the same nature. The lives of enslaved people were governed by the desires and whims of their owners, who controlled when, what, and how much they ate; when they got up and went to bed; what they wore; where they lived; and even their romantic and family life.

Previous forms of slavery, such as the kind that existed in ancient Rome, were based on regional conflicts, xenophobia, class differences, debt repayment, criminality, and warfare, but the uniqueness of transatlantic slavery was its basis in racial difference. It was the supposed biological inferiority of Africans that allowed white people to treat them like chattel, transporting them on slave ships and selling them as commodities in the “New World.” Scholars have tended to study slavery in tropical or semi-tropical colonies, such as Cuba and Jamaica, where plantation regimes dominated and the enslaved eventually became the majority of the population. Far less attention has been paid to temperate regions, such as Canada, where the enslaved became a minority. Given this lack of knowledge, Canadian historians have severely underestimated the impact of the cultural isolation that was inflicted on enslaved communities in the region. White owners insisted on the social separation of races, and this segregation literally followed black people to the grave.

While there is considerable variation across regions, Africans and their descendants in North America took great care with the burial of their dead. Death was seen as a “home going,” and the bodies of the deceased were often wrapped in funeral shrouds. Ritual objects and personal items were often placed in the coffin, which was sometimes nailed shut. Specific music, including what would eventually become gospel and blues, was usually performed at the burials. Of course, enslaved people’s ability to properly honour their loved ones was dictated by the whims of their owners, who may not have allowed them the time or freedom to bury a relative according to their desired cultural norms. But black cemeteries also became sites where oppression was momentarily suspended, replaced instead by communal ceremonies that preserved African culture and spirituality. Because of cultural prohibitions and enforced illiteracy, enslaved people were largely incapable of producing and disseminating cultural representations of themselves and their communities; grave markers would often have been made by the mourners themselves—and so the few tombstones that remain have value as material evidence of a community that was denied other forms of self-representation.

In 1991, archaeological surveyors who were excavating the site of a planned federal office in New York City uncovered the remains of more than 400 free and enslaved Africans and their descendants. Politicians and activists immediately recognized the location’s national significance. Archaeologists were given access to the site to reclaim its mysteries and preserve its legacy, and today, the African Burial Ground is a national monument, administered by the US National Park Service, that includes a visitor centre with exhibitions, tours, and special events.

Yet, in Canada, despite various petitions and letters from individuals and groups, such as the Black Coalition of Quebec, to branches of the Canadian government and even the United Nations, the existence of the black cemetery in Saint-Armand has elicited no significant political action. If the government had assumed responsibility for the burial site years ago—a significant step toward acknowledging the country’s investment in transatlantic slavery—my fellow visitors and I might have been able to see it without trouble in 2010. We would have touched the boulder’s face and paid tribute to our ancestors without deferring to a disgruntled landowner. But the boulder remains without official recognition, and archaeological materials continue to be lost or corrupted without necessary protections. One day, hopefully soon, that will change—and perhaps the respect that was denied to early black Canadians in life will finally be conferred in death.

The Writers’ Trust of Canada supported the author of this story.

Charmaine A. Nelson is the William Lyon Mackenzie King visiting professor of Canadian Studies at Harvard University. Her next book, Towards an African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory, and Resistance, is out this spring.

Sébastien Thibault draws for the New York Times, L’actualité, and The Atlantic.



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