In the spring of 2018, approximately 20 students from Académie Ste-Cécile International School in Windsor, Ont., crouched low in a farmer’s field with crayons and paper in hand. But rather than drawing the surrounding landscape, the Grade 11 and 12 students were busy recording local history – one gravestone at a time.
Carefully sliding the crayon sideways across the paper with a soft touch, indecipherable lettering on aged stone suddenly appeared to reveal names and dates as if by magic.
The students were using the rubbings to record information from gravestones in Essex County cemeteries that belonged to black settlers – including slaves and their offspring who had escaped to Canada from the United States through the Underground Railroad.
While some of the county’s 18 known black cemeteries are still cared for by local churches or the government, others are abandoned, nearly invisible. That class trip for geography and history students launched what would eventually garner them ample media attention and an esteemed Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award For Youth Achievement.
Jason Leung, now a graduate from Ste-Cécile who was part of the project, is still amazed by how it caught fire.
“Two classes came together and said, ‘Let’s do this project where we map lost black cemeteries around the county and help preserve history,’” Leung said. “We thought this would be interesting and it might be good to go out and explore, and actually do some historical work, instead of just sitting in the classroom.”
But the Ste-Cécile students took the project even further. By joining forces with local historians, geographic information system experts and the Town of Essex, they used the data collected from the headstones to create an online database now posted on the municipal website available to the public.
When local media started writing about the students and their “hidden cemeteries” project, a staff member at Ontario Heritage Trust (an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sports) reached out to the school and encouraged the classes to apply for the award.
“We’re always keeping our eye out to recognize this kind of exceptional work that young people are doing to celebrate, promote and protect their local history,” says David Leonard, the community programs officer at the Trust. “It was a really positive learning experience for the students, but also an effective exercise in raising awareness of black heritage in southwestern Ontario.”
It didn’t hurt that the project also left behind a resource for future generations of students, historians and researchers.
The importance of the award didn’t actually hit the students until one chilly night in February, 2019, as they stood at the grand staircase of the foyer at the legislative building in Queen’s Park. Leung recalls looking up at the building in awe before being whisked off to an awards reception at the Lieutenant-Governor’s suite, where he and his classmates were formally recognized.
But although that night was special, Leung says it was the process of working on the hidden cemeteries project that changed the way he sees the world, both past and present.
“Before this project, I always thought the Underground Railroad was an American phenomenon,” he says, explaining that although Canada was mentioned as the fleeing slaves’ ultimate destination in the books he read, they didn’t go into detail about what happened once they arrived here. “But this project has opened my eyes to the Canadian component.”
For instance, he discovered the term “the Real McCoy,” an idiom that means ‘the real thing,’ may have referred to prominent African Canadian Elijah McCoy, who was born in nearby Colchester Township and went on to become a revered engineer and inventor in the U.S.
True or not, it’s an interesting bit of relevant trivia. But there’s one haunting image Leung expects will stay with him: the sheer number of small graves the class discovered in the cemeteries. They likely marked the resting places for babies and young children, evidence of the extreme hardships the families endured even after arriving at their safe destination.
“Some of those headstones didn’t even have names,” he says. “It was something to think about.”
While Académie Ste-Cécile International School is based on the principles of the Catholic Church, it’s also ecumenical, meaning it is wide open to students of all faiths, from anywhere in the world. The school’s diversity dovetails nicely with goal of the hidden cemeteries project, which shone a light on Canada’s early diversity as well, Leung says. But he’s convinced it is the school’s small class sizes that made it possible for the project to happen at all.
With only 10 to 12 students in each class, lectures are often replaced by creative discussions and brainstorming sessions – some of which lead to hands-on, award-winning ideas.
“Teachers have the ability to build a rapport and situations where the class can bounce ideas off each other,” Leung says. “It’s very hard to replicate that without the small class sizes and the excellent environment we have.”