A little known, century-and-a-half-old black cemetery in Tecumseh is receiving a provincial heritage designation.

The Smith Cemetery on Banwell Road, which dates back to 1850, was designated a historical site in September by the Town of Tecumseh. Now, it will receive a provincial designation in a ceremony planned for the summer and will be renamed the Historic Banwell Road Black Cemetery.

Some of the buried in the cemetery were alive before slavery was abolished in Canada in 1834.


The property is informally named "Smith Cemetery" because it's the name most prominent on the headstones. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

"These were Canadian pioneers," Elise-Harding Davis, an African-Canadian heritage consultant said.

"During slavery they had no choice as to whether they were buried or not, or where they would be buried and some of the first things black people did when they got here was build a church and designate a plot for cemeteries so they could lovingly and legally bury our ancestors."

One of those buried is James Ross, who died in 1908.

His is the oldest recorded burial in the cemetery. Ross was murdered and his killer ended up being the last man hanged in Sandwich, Ont., which was eventually became part of Windsor. He was killed for his pocket change.

Glen Cook is Ross' great nephew, who worked on getting the provincial designation.

"It means a lot, not just for my ancestors but for everybody. There's other people's ancestors there," Cook said. "It means a lot that we can use this as a learning process."

The Town of Tecumseh expects to make some improvements to the cemetery grounds including adding a parking area and make it part of a planned walking trail on Banwell Road.

"These are all nice additional pieces of history that for many reasons [were] kept in the dark and now it's an opportunity for us celebrate some of the good things that have happened in the past," Tecumseh Mayor Gary McNamara said.

This is the second black cemetery in Essex County to receive a provincial heritage designation.

The Puce River Black Community Cemetery in Lakeshore, Ont. is the other, designated in August 2007.