Hidden cemeteries of Essex County hold Underground Railroad history
There are 18 known cemeteries in the Essex County area that belong to black settlers
Often tucked away behind thick forest or located in middle of fields, more than a dozen cemeteries containing the region's richest history rest hidden and some forgotten throughout Essex County.
Buried in these cemeteries are slaves and their descendants, who fled the United States into Canada through the Underground Railroad. The cemeteries are evidence of the hard work, resilience and hardships these refugees faced throughout the past two centuries.
There are 18 known cemeteries in the Essex County area that belong to black settlers. The cemeteries are cared for either through the municipality or by members of a nearby church — several cemeteries remain abandoned.
Elise Harding-Davis, a local author and historian, has dedicated her life to preserving and protecting cemeteries throughout Essex County and has spent countless hours researching and writing about cemeteries in the region.
"When I come into these cemeteries, it gladdens my heart to be able to honour my people … they made this country what it is today," she said. "Without their input Canada might not be the country it is."
Cemetery conditions were 'deplorable'
Harding-Davis said before her and a team of people started to restore some of the cemeteries, a lot of them "were deplorable".
The historian has watched farmers plow over cemeteries, seen headstones hanging in people's living rooms and even fought for the the Town of Essex to quit using a cemetery site as overflow parking for the annual Harrow Fair.
Harding-Davis has spent her time putting together lists of cemetery sites of all cultures to be designated municipally, then provincially and, finally, federally.
Cemeteries a way to care for loved ones
When descendants of the Underground Railroad made it to Canada they weren't free from racism and discrimination. However, they were free to make of their own choices.
They were real people and lived a life, some of them of absolute agony, they risked their lives to become free.- Elise Harding-Davis, Windsor-Essex historian
Refugees "specifically chose to have [their] own cemeteries," according to Harding-Davis.
"When we came here we made it our goal, first to build churches because they could act as places of worship and schools and to have our own cemeteries," she said."So we could lovingly bury our loved ones and take care of them after they died."
That simple idea was unfathomable while living in the United States.
"They were real people and lived a life, some of them of absolute agony, they risked their lives to become free in order to have families that could live like everyone else … and in order for them to do that today these cemeteries have to exist," Harding-Davis added.
Discover the unique story behind these three local cemeteries:
New Canaan Cemetery
The cemetery sits in a well-cut clearing in the forest about 400 meters off the road.
The most prominent person buried in the cemetery is Delos Rogest Davis, who was born in 1846. He was the first descendant of the Underground Railroad to become a lawyer in Canada.
St. Marks Cemetery
The cemetery hides behind a hill that was built to shield the headstones from the road. Fugitive slaves who were living in the area were still nervous of bounty hunters, so they lived a quieter lifestyle than some of the other communities in Essex County.
There are about 12 headstones tucked in the north east corner of the property, but experts say there are more than 100 people buried back there. The cemetery, as it stands today, is a small piece of land surrounded by a farm field. Historians believe there are bodies buried underneath the field.
Central Grove Cemetery
The cemetery is behind the 100-year-old church that sits on the property, although the cemetery has been around longer than the church.