African-American church near Maidstone now a heritage site

The province has designated the Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery near Maidstone a Provincial Heritage Property.

Shiloh Baptist Church built by African Americans fleeing segregation in 1912

Three generations of the Mayes family, who first came to Saskatchewan in 1910, stand in front of the Shiloh Baptist Church they built. (Submitted to CBC)

A church that is the only known building that remains from the first and only African-American farming community established in the Saskatchewan has been designated the province's 53rd Provincial Heritage Property.

Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery was completed in 1912 and is a representative example of early 20th-century log building construction in the province.

The site, about 30 kilometres northwest of Maidstone, was a settling community for African Americans escaping segregation in Oklahoma.

The families built structures, such as the Shiloh Baptist Church, using logs from poplar trees cut from the banks of the nearby North Saskatchewan River. The church provided a place of worship and communal space for the settlers.

Leander Lane's great-grandparents were among the original families to come and settle in the area, back in 1910. He said the church had always served many purposes for black people, whether it was as a place of worship, a school, or just a gathering place.

"It was just kind of a focal point of the black community all over the southern states or wherever they'd move," he said. 

They were a unique community; there was no other black communities like that in Saskatchewan.- Leander Lane, descendant

While many people aren't aware of this history, he said these black settlers faced the same challenges as their neighbours, dealing with the cold and harsh environment, prairie fires, and hacking a farm out of the bush. At the same time, their history was not quite like everyone else's, he noted.

"They were a unique community ... no other black communities like that in Saskatchewan."

Parks, Culture and Sport Minister Gene Makowsky noted that American families came to the province to escape discrimination. 

"Our government recognizes the importance of this site and the significant impact it has had in shaping the identity and culture of our province," he said in a press release.

The associated cemetery contains at least 37 graves of the original settlers and their descendants. Originally marked by large stones at the head and foot of each grave, it is the only known place in Saskatchewan that illustrates the African-American burial custom of the late 19th century.

Leander said the heritage designation of the church and cemetery is a source of pride for the settlers' descendants. 

"It means a lot to everyone. Now the church will be protected forever."

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