Graves without a name: African-Canadian heritage in Ontario
Words and music (c) 2014, Dominique Millette.
On the left, the studio mix I had done, with vocals by Bryant Didier, who also played the instruments and recorded the song.I wanted something more finished than what I could do on my own.
On the right, my original rough mix with my own voice and guitar.
(Scroll down for lyrics)
History and background
« I was discouraged in so many ways that I came to Canada, to see if I could find a place where a colored man could have some privilege. I find it the reverse here to what they have in the States. There is some prejudice here among the low class of people, but they have not got the power to carry it out here that they have in the States. The law here is stronger than the mob - it is not so there...»
- John D. Moore, London Ontario, 1856 (quoted in A Safe Haven. The Story of the Black Settlers of Oxford County, by Joyce A. Pettigrew, South Norwich Historical Society, 2006, p. 27)
« The younger people had to go to the cities to find work and the older generation had passed on. The decline in agriculture on the sand land, accented by the general depression of the whole country, produced a general roaming of people in the (nineteen) twenties and thirties. Sherman DeGroat was the last of the original families to live in the area. He died in 1978 and is buried in New Road Cemetery.»
- ibidem, p. 51
Many pioneer cemeteries are abandoned today, their markers faded and left behind. I've never thought of visiting the grave of my great-grandfather, myself. However, before going to Otterville, I'd never seen a cemetery missing every headstone but one.
The headstones were in fact made of wood, and therefore, did not withstand the elements. They left behind an enduring mystery.
These vanished headstones, to me, are a vivid embodiment of the vanished and neglected history of Black settlement in Canada.
The above is a song inspired by the many long-forgotten stories of African-Canadian pioneers throughout the province. Though their histories differ substantially, the common thread is how much effort it takes to learn about them. I learned about Otterville by chance, while looking for something else. In some cases, few written records exist, and heritage was not always valued for its own sake. In other cases, books and studies remain unknown or unavailable outside very narrow local boundaries or specialized venues. For example, copies of A Safe Haven are available in the Toronto Reference Library as well as in Ingersoll and other Oxford County libraries, but the work has not been digitized and isn't widely available for purchase.
There are several relatively little-known sites in Southwestern Ontario, including in Oxford County.
Otterville, Ontario is the site of early settlements by African-Canadians starting in 1829. Freemen arriving in the area from New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts were assisted by local Quakers, and in turn they actively aided Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad to settle escaped slaves. Many found employment in the local mill. One local freeman, Francis Johnson, was one of over 50,000 Canadians to fight in the American Civil War on the Union side. By 1850, there were over 150 African-Canadians in Otterville, with a school (1842) and a church (1856) to serve the community. Black children had usually been excluded from public education in southwestern Ontario and consequently had to attend separate schools. However, area schools were apparently integrated in 1855.
Despite their apparently successful participation in the community at large, many Black residents left after the end of the American Civil War, believing in the promise of Emancipation. Others left to find employment in more urban areas as decades went by. Intermarriage and assimilation also played a role, as individual ancestors became more and more distant. Several families in the area apparently still claim some African ancestry.
The African Methodist Episcopalian cemetery in Otterville is one of a few remaining preserved burial grounds of African-Canadian pioneers. However, there are no names on any of the markers. Only a single tombstone remains. The associated white clapboard church ceased to be active after 1888, and no trace of it was left standing, though cornerstones mark the area. There is now a historical plaque at the site.
Contrary to what happened in Priceville, several hundreds of kilometres north, where the headstones in the African-Canadian cemetery were deliberately removed and "recycled" as foundation stones, flooring, and even a baseball diamond, there no evidence of anything similar done to any headstones in the Otterville African-Canadian cemetery. Many of the existing markers simply disintegrated over time due to the organic nature of the wood used. Most pamphlets and works alluding to the cemetery simply state that the stones "disappeared". The overall effect, however, remains disconcerting.
Near the Grand Trunk railway station which still stands as a historical site and museum today, several headstones are grouped in separate rows in two separate reconstituted burial grounds. Most are of white residents. It is apparently unclear which of the graves belong to African-Canadian residents. Other cemeteries in Otterville have more identifiable information. The Milldale cemetery, for example, is home to the graves of Isaac and Martha Williams, two well-regarded African-Canadian musicians of the day. Members of several other families were buried in St. John's Anglican cemetery. Known records therefore suggest a degree of integration in death as well as in life: to some, a victory, and to others, a disappearance. Integration, however, did not always translate into acceptance in every community in the province. The Separate School Act of 1850 is a case in point, since it arose out of requests by the African-Canadian community due to rising prejudice against children in integrated schools.
Some links to local history:
Fascinating look at herbal remedies in African-Canadian life in Oxford County
General articles on Oxford County
Black history in Ontario
Speakers for the Dead, a documentary by the National Film Board:
Graves without a name
Words and music (c) 2014, Dominique Millette
Down Otterville way
There's a place of nameless graves
Swept by a lonely breeze
Where the only sound is of falling leaves
They came here for freedom
They came here to thrive
Smiths, coopers, masons
Their children and wives
Scattered like autumn leaves, stories survive
Am Gmaj Dmaj
Of what they created when they were alive
I can hear voices that call from the stone
Who will remember we lie here alone?
This was home
We'd found a home
This was our home
Whistling winds mingle in with our moans
Our names are forgotten along with our bones
Where is home?
We thought we were home
This was our home
Down Otterville way
Different families came to stay
Freemen with skills to share
Or those run from slavery's toil and despair
They came here for joy and
They came here to shine
To pray and to play
By chance or by design
Scattered like autumn leaves, why did they go
Am Gmaj Dmaj
That their boots left no traces on our fallen snow?
Then up Priceville way
There's a more shameful tale to say
Not many welcome there
Whose dark skin elicited obdurate glares
Those first pioneers
Saw their hope turn to weeds
Officials and rivals
Said there were no deeds
Scattered like autumn leaves, taken away
Their headstones were used by white families to play
For more pictures of Otterville during their tenth annual Civil War re-enactment, with a brief description of its Canadian and local context, click here