A rediscovered Black refugee graveyard outside a church in a Halifax-area community is shrouded in moss and mystery.

About a decade ago, membership at the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Upper Hammonds Plains was steadily rising, so a decision was made to expand. Excavation began beside the existing structure, built in 1845.

That's when workers stumbled upon a surprising find — scores of gravestones, in perfect rows. 

"It was always known that the church's graveyard was directly behind the old edifice and on this bright, sunny morning I heard all the trucks come to a screeching halt," Lennett Anderson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, told CBC's Information Morning.

"They were just clearing trees and making way for a new expansion and they said they saw vertical rocks in alignment for quite a distance into the woods."

Anderson said when the contractors told him to see what they discovered, he initially shrugged it off. But they were insistent, he said, and looked as if they "had seen a ghost or something." So he rushed into the woods.

"The moment became very sacred for me when I bowed down at one of these tomb markings," he said. "I removed the moss and saw the name Thomas Anderson, 1827.

"Because I knew my family tree I knew instantly that out of all the grave markings I could have selected, the one I bowed down and removed the moss from was my great-great-great-grandfather." 

'We don't want to lose the record'

black loyalist

Emmanuel Baptist Church hopes the site can one day be excavated with the help of archeologists. (Submitted by the Delmore "Buddy" Daye Learning Institute)

It's been 12 years now, and the graveyard is in the same state: moss-covered with trees growing all around. The community has been actively writing grant applications and trying to partner with archeologists and researchers to excavate the site. But it's a slow process.

Anderson said the moment he saw the gravestones was unforgettable and he wants the site preserved. 

"[I was] speechless, overwhelmed with emotions to know that you're standing on sacred ground that was lost in our oral history," he said.  

"We don't want to lose the record. This is really a record of the first original settlers that came as free refugees or the War of 1812, fleeing the plantations of Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, Baltimore areas, coming for a better land.

"I was ashamed by the condition. This is our sacred ground of our ancestors and we didn't know."  

What was happening at that time?

The years around 1827 were particularly hard for black refugees, according to Tony Colaiacovo, a publishing consultant working with the Delmore "Buddy" Daye Learning Institute in Halifax.

There were many deaths from disease, which could account for the many gravestones at the Upper Hammonds Plains site that date from the period. 

"The government had stopped issuing provisions to the settlers," he told Information Morning. "Diseases ran rampant during those periods … epidemics like smallpox, scarlet fever and so on were not unheard of.

"Diseases swept through these settlements and I think in that period they lost about 20 per cent of their actual population in Hammonds Plains." 

Colaiacovo said it's important to protect the history of African Nova Scotians.

"The history of African Nova Scotians in this province is actually the story of all Nova Scotians," he said. 

"African Nova Scotians comprised 10 per cent of all the Loyalists that settled the provinces, so their history in the province goes back to the very beginning of Euro-centric history, so their history is woven into the fabric of our history." 

You can listen to the full Information Morning interview here: