There’s no sign guiding you to the old Wheary cemetery. The gate long ago rusted and fell off, and the weeds creep back every spring. But the gravestones are still here, if you know where to look.
To find it, you need to turn down a private laneway past a gas station on Route 105, a two-lane ribbon of asphalt that runs through the rolling farmland of the Saint John River valley in central New Brunswick.
Mary Louise McCarthy-Brandt knows the way. She likes to say her ancestors led her here. As a Black woman trying to trace her family’s history back to the province’s colonial days, she says she needs all the help she can get. She spent years combing through provincial archives, reading everything she could about New Brunswick’s early Black settlers, hoping for even a passing mention of her ancestors. But she found very little, she says. “It underscored for me the reality that many people don’t want to recognize Black stories as part of our history.”
Black immigration from the U.S. played an important role in the early development of New Brunswick as a colony.
Around a third of the 5,000 African-Americans who fled the U.S. as part of a “Loyalist” migration north during and after the American Revolutionary War eventually settled here. Several thousand more came during the War of 1812. But while they may have escaped slavery in the south, they still faced hostility, racial segregation and economic challenges when they arrived.
The inequities they experienced in life also followed them in death. In many cases, the cemeteries those early Black settlers left behind have been forgotten and abandoned, allowed to overgrow and crumble. Some have only recently been discovered again.
Dr. McCarthy-Brandt’s research into her own family’s history eventually led her to Wheary, a once-hidden burial ground that sits in the same valley that attracted waves of Black settlement in the 1800s. When she first saw the site, she was stunned. The cemetery was thick with trees and bushes, and badly neglected. “I was just aghast that this was so unknown,” she says. “The first time I came here, we had to claw through the trees to get in.”
Dr. McCarthy-Brandt vowed to clean up the Wheary site, and organized a group of volunteers who cut back the grass and overgrowth every year, and try to restore the site as best they can. It holds a significant place in New Brunswick’s history. The cemetery is named after Joseph Wheary, the son of a Black Loyalist who was one of the first people of colour to purchase land in the province in 1801.
There are at least 22 graves here – and along with other burial sites scattered across the province, they stand as little-known monuments to an overlooked chapter in Canadian history.
“Many of these other gravesites have been forgotten,” says Dr. McCarthy-Brandt. “But I can’t rest with allowing my ancestors’ graves to be abandoned. I can’t allow it.”
Like many of the Black graveyards around the province, Wheary sits on private property, which requires the co-operation of land owners to access and maintain the burial ground.
But Dr. McCarthy-Brandt is trying to raise funds to restore its gravestones, and hopes to use ground-penetrating technology to confirm how many people are resting inside.
She has a vision for a much more ambitious project to memorialize lost Black burial grounds: the creation of a digitized, national database for these gravesites across Canada. She hopes it could become a searchable public document so younger generations don’t have to fight through the weeds and woods to find their ancestors.
“People are contacting me regularly about graves that have been abandoned. There’s more and more all the time,” says Dr. McCarthy-Brandt.
“People don’t realize how privileged they are that they can go to a graveyard and find their relatives. There are a lot of families who don’t have that.”
Gaps in the history
Dr. McCarthy-Brandt was a New Brunswick civil servant before she retired and wrote her PhD dissertation at the University of Toronto on segregation in N.B.’s graveyards. She’s spent years trying piece together her own family’s history and was elated to find ancestors lying in the Wheary cemetery. But it’s the ones she can’t find who really bother her.
Her fifth-great grandmother was a former slave named Sabina Grant, who came to New Brunswick in 1784 as a servant of a prominent Loyalist lawyer and judge named Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Allen. While Ms. Grant gets scant attention in historical records, Lt.-Col. Allen’s story is well known. He’s buried with the other white Loyalists in Fredericton’s Old Burial Ground, while Ms. Grant’s final resting place – along with those of her two sons fathered by Lt.-Col. Allen – are unknown.
“I have no idea where she’s buried. I’ve spent a lot of time looking, and I can’t find her,” says Dr. McCarthy-Brandt. “These people deserve the dignity of being remembered. Black lives mattered then, as they do now.”
As the bookish youngest child in a family of nine kids, Dr. McCarthy-Brandt was drawn to her family’s old stories, shared by older relatives over pots of tea and slices of bread. But as an adult, she discovered tracing those stories through archival sources was difficult. Her ancestors were the Black servants and labourers who helped build the province, but they’d received little attention from historians. They’re often missing from official documents, such as birth, baptism, death and burial records, too.
“You can’t find their records, because they weren’t seen or valued,” says Dr. McCarthy-Brandt.
“It’s just another example of how history is so one-sided. I tell archivists what I’m looking for, and they just look at me like a deer in the headlights.”
Sometimes, Black people preferred to stay off the books. Before 1864, when the U.S. ended the Fugitive Slave Act, escaped slaves and their descendants living in the Maritimes were often hesitant to speak to census keepers for fear that identifying themselves could cause their former owners to send bounty hunters to reclaim them.
“A lot of Black folks avoided the enumerators,” says Peter Little, a local historian who lives near Saint John. “They were a bit leery of giving out their name and address, because these Americans figured they had carte blanche to cross any international border and grab any runaway slave they wanted. I think that attitude was passed down to other generations. There was pretty huge distrust.”
And so Black cemeteries – just like the people buried in them – often went undocumented. “In some places, it’s just word of mouth – there’s no written record,” says Ralph Thomas, president of the New Brunswick Black History Society. “People will say, ‘There’s supposed to be a burial ground down that road, a half mile into the woods.’ We know there are others out there, but we don’t know where they are. We can’t find them.”
There was also widespread segregation even after death. “Unlike whites, Blacks weren’t given the privilege of being buried in most church cemeteries – they were kept apart,” says David Payne, a resident of Bangor, Maine, who has spent 20 years documenting Black history in New Brunswick.
That means Black gravesites were often placed on private property, with no church to maintain them. As Black families moved away and the land was sold, there was no one left to care for the sites or advocate for those buried there. In other cases, churches had “coloured” sections outside the consecrated grounds of their cemeteries.
In the case of Saint John’s historic Loyalist Burial Ground, established in 1783, Black people were buried next to the cemetery, on land now occupied by the headquarters of Irving Oil. By the time the company restored the graves of the United Empire Loyalists in 1994, the Black gravesites had vanished and received no mention.”
In death, they were treated the same way they were in life. It was just short of contempt. It was just, ‘Bury them, get it done with, put them somewhere,’ " says Mr. Little, who’s trying to get a grave marker installed to honour the burial site of A.B. Walker, the first Canadian-born Black lawyer and a civil rights leader. “And typically, the Black folks didn’t have the money to fork out for any kind of marker. They may have put up a wooden one, but they would be long gone.”
The lack of records presents particular challenges for genealogists documenting Black families in this region in the 18th and 19th centuries. Without cemetery or census records, families have to sift through historical land deeds to try to guess where their ancestors might be buried.
“Cemeteries are like oral history for families, whether you’re Black or white,” says Mr. Payne. “When generations come forward who want to learn their history, it doesn’t exist. There’s nothing to find. There’s nothing to tell. You don’t just lose something personally, but socially as well.”
Mr. Payne, whose ancestors were slaves owned by George Washington, also traces his roots back to one of New Brunswick’s first Black Loyalist families. His grandfather left for New England as a young man and took his memories of his family’s Canadian connection with him. That history survived only in oral stories, before Mr. Payne began a two-decade quest to dig up the past. “He told me those stories on his deathbed. I’d never heard any of this stuff before,” he says. “When I was growing up, it was never spoken of.”
It’s not just his own history that had been lost. Burial grounds are important historical sites that tell the story of a place. These lost graveyards help explain the role of Black communities in the early development of New Brunswick. “Why aren’t we learning from the past? Because we bury it. That’s what these cemeteries represent,” says Mr. Payne. “You’re burying history, and it just disappears.”
One of the largest Black burial grounds in New Brunswick is in Willow Grove, about 25 kilometres outside of Saint John. It was here that several hundred people tried to establish their own community by carving out subsistence farms in the woods in the 1800s. Many of them were escaped slaves from Virginia and Maryland, who fled during the War of 1812 and came to Saint John aboard a British warship. They were eventually granted 55 acres each – less than half the land given to white settlers – and tried to begin a new life in a new country.
They built a church, a post office and a general store, and struggled to turn the rough woodland into farms. But the soil was poor for farming, and many families, desperate for money, eventually sold their plots to a local lumber magnate, who paid them a fraction of what it was worth. They were already indebted to land surveyors before they even started, because unlike white farmers, whose land survey fees were paid by the colonial government, the Blacks of Willow Grove had to pay out of pocket.
“It was total economic racism at work,” says Roger Nason, a New Brunswick historian. “The community was basically strangled from the start, so that many people went off to the city.”
The only remnant of the failed community is its cemetery, which was abandoned after the last burial in 1941.
Any records of those previously buried in the graveyard were lost when the Willow Grove Baptist Church burned down 10 years earlier. But it’s believed that more than 100 Black settlers are buried here, though their wooden grave markers long ago succumbed to the elements. In the decades after the Second World War, the cemetery became overgrown and neglected.
Pretty soon, it was hard to tell there was a cemetery there at all.
“I grew up playing on that street corner right beside the cemetery, and I had no idea there was a burial ground here, or that there were Black folks buried there,” Mr. Thomas says. “Nobody talked about it.”
Like a lot of Black New Brunswickers with deep roots in the province, Mr. Thomas knows he has relatives buried in the cemetery, but he doesn’t know where. For years, he and others have been trying to preserve the story of Willow Grove, which was recently commemorated in a Canada Post stamp. The owners of the land the cemetery sits on donated the property, and have helped maintain the site for visitors, mowing the lawn and clearing trees as needed. Volunteers built a small indoor display, erected a large cross and installed monuments to honour the settlement’s history.
“People come and say, ‘There were slaves here, in New Brunswick?’” says Mr. Thomas. “This tells a part of their story. But there’s a lot more we still don’t know.”
A rare exception
One of the few exceptions to the segregation of gravesites in the 1800s is the cemetery at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Fredericton. It’s believed to be the only example in Atlantic Canada – and maybe even the whole country – where Black and white people were buried side by side, according to Dr. Rev. Ross Hebb, a historian and the church’s pastor.
“It’s unheard of. It’s singular,” he says. “There was full integration of dead Black and white people. The tombstones tell us that story...I don’t know anywhere else that this happened.”
St. Peter’s had a mixed congregation of about one-third Black and two-thirds white Loyalists, who settled into an area then known as Springhill. From the beginning, Blacks were employed as church staff, sang in the choir and worked as gravediggers. When the church was built in 1837, the main carpenter was a Black man named George Leek – the son of Dr. McCarthy-Brandt’s ancestor Sabina Grant.
Today, St. Peter’s is a protected historic site, with its white wooden exterior and distinctive bell tower. Even for Blacks who left the area after the Second World War, the connection to the church remains strong – so much so that some request to be buried there when they die, says Dr. Hebb.
The Anglican Church didn’t officially change its policy on segregation in cemeteries until 1917, almost 80 years after St. Peter’s began breaking the rules.
But while St. Peter’s maintains rare burial records for both Black and white settlers, well before most churches disowned colour barriers, in many cases, the final resting spots of New Brunswick’s earliest Black residents remain unknown.
Some burial sites can’t be located, while some others can’t be restored because development has altered the land significantly. In one case, in Bloomfield, N.B., an unmarked Black burial ground was plowed over to make a parking lot for a rural church.
Other sites are shrouded in mystery. There’s the grave of an anonymous Black man buried at a rural cemetery in Passekeag Ridge, N.B. He died in 1800, and his coffin was left on top of a snowbank by two gravediggers who didn’t want to bother interring him. With no name and no headstone, the cemetery’s groundskeeper simply covered it with earth in the springtime. It wasn’t until 1996 that his story was uncovered, and he was given a proper headstone.
In the case of the Kingsclear Kilburn Community Cemetery displaced by the Mactaquac Dam project, built in the 1960s to supply power to the province, there’s no chance of recovering the original burial site. The province’s power commission moved the white graves, but left the Black graves where they were when the land was flooded, says Dr. McCarthy-Brandt.
A granite monument was installed at a new cemetery to honour “the early Negro residents” left behind at the Mactaquac burial site, but Dr. McCarthy-Brandt says that doesn’t go far enough. She wants a formal apology from NB Power, the electrical authority that built the hydro dam, and the province has agreed to install a new stone to acknowledge this history.
No such official monument exists at the Wheary cemetery, but as Dr. McCarthy-Brandt walks between the graves, brushing snow off the markers, she says she feels at peace here and vows not to let the cemetery be forgotten again. The land itself is now protected by a heritage designation, though the gravesites still aren’t listed in provincial archives. And Dr. McCarthy-Brandt believes there are others buried below who remain nameless, with no marker to tell their story.
“There’s no evidence they existed,” she says. “But we know they were here.”
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