A look back at why Fort Erie’s ‘Coloured Cemetery’ is called that


Published February 25, 2022 at 2:48 pm

By today’s standards, as well as those going back many decades, it’s a downright offensive name – the “Coloured Cemetery” in Fort Erie. So why is it called that?

Part of the answer is rooted in its history back to the mid-1800s and like so many things in Niagara, which is rich in black folklore, it has connections to the Underground Railroad.

Between 1830 and 1880, the area from the Niagara Parks Commission Marina at the Niagara River, stretching west to Stevensville and ending at Ridgemount Road became known as “Little Africa,” which frankly doesn’t sound much better.

However, the area was entirely populated, at one time, by African-American slaves who came to Canada by the Underground Railroad from the south.

Lest anyone think actual locomotive trains were involved, the Underground Railroad was, in fact, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-1800s that were used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada.

With its proximity to northern New York, many of them landed in Niagara Region. While “Little Africa” in Fort Erie started with roughly 80 black settlers, it would eventually grow to a little more than 200 by about 1880 or so. Black settlers used local wood to build their houses as the area was rich with black walnut, maple, white oak, ash and hickory trees.

The village flourished between 1840 and 1875, documented as being quite prosperous, having its own neighbourhood stores and church. Of course, with every church comes a cemetery.

So eventually in the 1980s, someone did question the inappropriate nature of the name, which in turn sent the Cemetery Board scurrying to find old records of funeral homes and the Land Registry Office to figure out how it came to be named that.

As it turned out from what the board was able to ascertain, the term “coloured” was used as a descriptor in the Canada Census in both 1851 and 1861, roughly the same time the cemetery was created and named. It was the most common bureaucratic term used to describe black people at the time.

However, the Cemetery Board pointed out that at various points in time, the “Coloured Cemetery” was also known by area residents as the Rose Cemetery, the Dennahower Cemetery, the Curtis Road Cemetery (its actual location in Fort Erie) and even the Little Cemetery Around The Corner.

The question of who originally named it that is still unknown but it’s suspected it may have been the community of “Little Africa” itself.

Apparently, it’s still known to many by all those different names. In fact, given the subsequent increase in European settlers in the area, a majority of the people buried there are white.

Fort Erie took on responsibility for the land back in 1975. While the town maintains it, many of the stones are deteriorating rapidly. The Curtis Road southside fencing was removed by the town in 2008 but the remaining three sides are still fenced with additional perimeters of trees.

A plaque at the “Coloured Cemetery” in Fort Erie listing off the many other names it’s been known as over the years.

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