Race in the Graveyard

race in the graveyard

Neither the dead nor the living paid much attention to me as I wandered around the cemetery. It would have been hard for the corpses to do as they were, well, dead. I strolled along the meandering paths looking for the graves of the famous Black residents.

The spring sunshine warmed my face, even as the air tried to freeze it. Like a clueless dinner guest, winter was determined to hang on until the very end. I wrapped the scarf more snugly around my neck and donned my hood. I had to find the graves.

Homes for the dead are unique outdoors spaces that reflect the basic values and beliefs of a society.  In multi-racial countries the fault lines of race tend to follow the dead to the grave. Sometimes it is shrouded in religious garments such as Jews only in Jewish cemeteries, Catholics in Catholics boneyards and so on. Yet, lift the denominational death mask and race stares back, cold, unblinking, and as enduring as the bones.

The Toronto Necropolis cemetery is a brisk fifteen minute walk from my downtown apartment. When it opened in 1850, it was on the outskirts of the city. The cemetery lies on a high ridge overlooking a steep valley. A century ago the Don River gurgled in the wide crevice on its way to Lake Ontario. Today the acoustics is provided by cars, buzzing like angry wasps, as they race along the highway. The poor river is entombed in a concrete straightjacket as its drips down to the lake.

The Necropolis was a non-denominational burial ground, meaning that anyone could sleep in peace there. Make that anyone who was rich. Race and religion was not an issue, but money was, and still is, essential to be allowed to rot in the hallowed grounds. The gravestones are a who-was-who of life in Toronto. Mayors, doctors, politicians and journalists who argued among themselves in life are now quiet together in death.

The cemetery was designed as a pastoral park, filled with winding paths and elegant trees. The graves are loosely arranged. Like flowers in an English garden, there is order but not rigidity. I found the first grave on my second loop through the park. It was a red granite obelisk pointing to the sky. The Egyptian symbol of the sun’s rays, hence of life, was a fitting tribute for Thornton and Lucie Blackburn.

Both were escaped slaves. Their flight to Canada in 1833, caused the first race riot in Detroit and a legal ruckus between Canada and the USA. Canada ruled that slaves could not be returned to their former owners, thus the country became the terminus for the Underground Railroad. The Blackburns thrived in Toronto, starting the first taxi company in the city. Thornton risked everything to go back to the USA to rescue his mother and brother from slavery. The size of the obelisk, some six feet tall, is a good indicator of the Blackburns wealth and status in the city.

Boneyards are outdoor places of culture, history and memory. In life, it is essential that we are individuals, first to ourselves and then to the rest of the world. It is no different in death. Gravestones are etched with a name, birthday and death-day. Some point to the place of the dead in the family. They were once mother, husband, beloved child.

The fresh graves had heaped soil spilling from the plot. Without a marker the unnamed corpse was anonymous. Such was the fate of most enslaved people. In life, they were recorded in the plantation ledger, as a sexed and aged property among the other assets like the cows and the pigs. In death they were interred in unmarked graves at the bitter edges of the cotton, sugar or rice plantations.  Most of these slave graveyards are now lost, reclaimed by overgrown vegetation or concrete parking lots. They are buried by a present determined to forget that it forged the shackles and cracked the whips.

The gravestone was simple for William Peyton Hubbard. He was the first Black politician elected in Canada. In a twenty-year career he served as the acting mayor of Toronto. This is remarkable as in those long ago days, politicians were elected annually. Every year he had to campaign to earn his votes! Hubbard was born in Toronto in 1840; his parents were fugitive slaves from the USA.

Anderson Ruffian Abbot was the first Black Canadian to become a doctor. He came from a wealthy family which owned about 50 houses in Toronto in the 1870s. Anderson imperiled his life by joining the union army in the USA Civil War. He was one of the doctors who tried to save President Lincoln after the assassin’s bullet munched his flesh.

Abbot, the Blackburns and the Hubbards disrupt the expected story of Black life in Toronto. They showed what was possible when free. They were among the wealthy elite in Toronto. And they never forgot were the came from. Passionate activists in the abolition movement, they endangered their comfortable lives by returning to the USA to rescue other family members from the whip.

Departing the lifeless, I headed back to the entrance of the cemetery. The elaborate gates – huge, arched and covered with gingerbread trim – were impressive. They were a not so subtle indicator that in entering the gates, we were leaving one world behind and entering another.

Black History Walks in Toronto

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