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Here’s Why a Toronto Resident is Chained to a Historical Black Burial Site and on a Hunger Strike in the Niagara Region

James Russell is currently sitting in a lawn chair, tied to a cemetery plaque and on a hunger strike. (Courtesy: Steve Rusell/ Twitter)

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — A Toronto resident has chained himself to a historical Black burial site in Niagara-on-the-Lake and has started a hunger strike to call on the town to restore headstones buried in the site. 

James Russell is on a mission to have the town dig up and restore nearly 20 headstones belonging to former slaves at the Negro Burial Ground.

The 76-year-old is currently sitting in a lawn chair, tied to a cemetery plaque, and has reportedly been there since Monday. 

Russell said a town employee admitted last year that he and his co-workers had buried them back in the 80s to make it easier to cut the grass, he told local newspaper Niagra-On-The-Lake Local.

In response, he decided to tie himself to the Negro Burial Ground plaque with a big chain. 

“Any discomfort I might feel pales in comparison to the pain and discomfort experienced by the people buried here, who came to this country under darkness, under the threat of death. Any dignity that I can restore to them through this protest will be well worth my own pain,” he told the newspaper.

Russell plans on staying there until Niagara-on-the-Lake Mayor Gary Zalepa accepts his demands on camera.

This all began when Russell, a former photojournalist, first laid eyes on the site in 1985. 

READ MORE: Five fearless Black women who left their mark in Canadian history

To his surprise, and nightmare, the cemetery is in the same shape. In 2021, he petitioned the town to allow him to penetrate the ground himself. The following year, he hired a company to carry out the job.

Their radar showed there were 28 graves and 19 buried headstones on the historic site. 

Now he wants justice for those resting. 

Russell isn’t alone on his quest for restoration. Friends of the Forgotten, a collective group of people working together to transform the site into a dignified memorial landscape, is right there with him.

According to the group’s website, the burial site has seen better days. 

It was established in 1829, abandoned in 1878, vandalized in the 1950s and is now an open field. 

“Below which lie the bodies of 28 Canadian settlers and their headstones, the restoration of the Negro Burial Ground is a labour of love,” the website reads.

Its goals are to identify the individuals buried on the site, search for living descendants in Canada and elsewhere and engage professionals and historians to properly and professionally restore the burial ground.

Now Toronto reached out to the collective for comment and did not get a response in time for publication.

The restorations could cost around $60,000, according to archaeological research associates Russell hired for an estimate

With at least two days worth of water, a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel To Have and Have Not, and his wife bringing him a change of clothes, Russell appears to be ready for anything.



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