Students take on a first of its kind project documenting lost black history in Essex County

Grade 11 and 12 students at Academie Ste-Cecile International School spent Monday surveying historic black cemeteries across Essex County.

'What we're doing is recording the information on different headstones'

Grade 12 students at Academie Ste-Cecile International School collecting data on black cemeteries. (Melissa Nakhavoly/CBC)

A group of 16 students sit crouched in front of headstones scattered throughout the Harrow British Methodist Episcopal Cemetery in Harrow. The high school kids press a piece of paper to the century-old stone and with a crayon, gently etch over top.

They're trying to read the names and dates that have eroded from the rock.

"What we're doing is recording the information on different headstones," said Jason Leung, a grade 12 student at Academie Ste-Cecile International School.

The group is surveying a list of black cemeteries in Essex County that have been lost overtime. Their goal is to document all the details and then use the information to create an interactive digital map of all the cemeteries.

It's a project that has never been done before in Windsor-Essex County and they're hoping their efforts will help preserve black history for generations to come.

Jason Leung, a grade 12 student at Academie Ste-Cecile International School. (Melissa Nakhavoly/CBC)

"Surveying has been done in the past but what we're doing here is geo-locating all the headstones in addition to recording the condition of the headstone," explained David Brian, a geography teacher who facilitated the project.

Brian said the idea for the project came after hearing a CBC Windsor News story in February which shone light on the hidden cemeteries scattered throughout Essex County, and the rich history associated with the Underground Railroad.

"It was through a CBC report we heard about this and we thought, 'Hey we're teaching GIS in our geography which is the foundation technology behind this,'" explained Brian. "We thought this is something we can do for our community but also have our students learn about the history of the black people here."

A registry of all the people who have died in the various cemeteries across Essex County already exists. But it has never been digitized with a location.

The students are using an electronic application called Survey 123 to document their data.

It's definitely opened my eyes.- Jason Leung, Grade 12 student

"It's definitely opened my eyes. I feel very good going out here and uncovering history," said Leung.

Elise Harding-Davis is a local author and historian that has helped with the preservation and research of black cemeteries in Essex County and played a role in the class project.

Harding-Davis said she's thrilled to see the students taking part in protecting what she called a sacred part of history.

High school students are doing their part in preserving black cemeteries in Essex County for future generations. (Melissa Nakhavoly/CBC)

"For students to come out and touch history and record history for the first time this site has been officially recorded means the world to me," said Harding-Davis.

Once all the data is collected, the findings will be posted in digital form on the Town of Essex website.

"You can read about things in a book you can drive by them but it's not the same as coming in and actually taking rubbings and recording that history for history's sake," said Harding-Davis.


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