Through a collaborative Brock project, work is underway to share the lived experiences and community contributions of African descendants in Niagara-on-the-Lake and across the Niagara region.
Brock University Professor Lissa Paul, artist Quentin VerCetty and PhD candidate Hyacinth Campbell have been working to memorialize those buried in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s historic Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground and to restore the memory of Niagara’s African diaspora community to the landscape.
The project, “Memorializing the people of the fugitive slave ads: Barbados and Niagara,” has been underway since 2020 and includes a website and proposal for a physical memorial at the Mississauga Street burial ground, where the former Niagara Baptist Church, formed in 1930, once stood.
“This is about recovering the lived experiences of the African diasporic community and people of African descent in Niagara as well as their contributions to the community,” Paul says.
The research reflects the experiences of many individuals who arrived in Niagara through the Underground Railroad.
“Instead of depicting them as people needing help, we are focusing on sharing their story as creative, independent, courageous, resilient and imaginative people who built lives for themselves under consistently oppressive conditions.”
The project comes out of Paul’s more than decade-long work on fugitive slave ads and her collaboration with the Barbados Archives to digitize the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette newspapers under the British Library Endangered Programme Grant and as part of the Digital Library of the Caribbean.
The ongoing initiative has led to the creation of the Memorials to People in Fugitive Ads website, designed by Campbell, which includes first-person testimonials, published by Benjamin Drew in 1856, of those who came to Niagara to escape slavery.
“The stories about their enslavement are mostly omitted from the general narrative in the colonial archives; their voices on the institution and their enslavement muted,” says Campbell.
“Sharing these first-person testimonials of freedom seekers is part of the efforts of this project to give visibility to their stories,” she says. “Our knowledge of the terrors of enslavement is partly gained from our understanding of the everyday lives of the enslaved.”
VerCetty, a Canadian multi-disciplinary artist, sculptor and activist, joined the project to develop a vision for the memorial to those who lived, worked and died in Niagara. He previously created a statue of Joshua Glover in Toronto, and has been commissioned to complete a statue of Lincoln Alexander.
In addition to her work on the project, Paul is also on the executive committee of Friends of the Forgotten, a group working with Niagara-on-the-Lake town council to address the historic erasure of Niagara’s Black community.
Just as other historic moments and communities have been marked by statues, cenotaph and clock towers, the African diasporic community needs to be represented in the landscape, Paul says.
“We do decolonization by recovering their stories from their testimonies and the fugitive slave ads and making their presence visible in the landscape,” she says.