By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
CANFIELD—Growing up, Aileen Duncan of Hamilton never heard much about the Street side of her family history beyond one thing – the church on the corner of Highway 56 and Highway 3 had a connection to her past.
“The only thing my grandfather would say is that church used to belong to my great-great-grandparents Stepney and Lucy,” reminisced Aileen. “That was the only thing we knew about the Streets.”
Lucy Canada, a freedom seeker who was born into slavery in 1813, married Stepney Street and together they had 13 children. On their journey along the underground railroad to Canada and freedom, they separated; Lucy took three of their children, one of whom, Henrietta, later dictated details of the journey in a family history that has since been donated to the Haldimand County Museum and Archives.
The Streets, who settled in Canfield after leaving the Niagara region when word came of slave catchers from across the border, eventually owned 300 acres of agricultural land in the area and founded a Baptist church that remained open until 1972.
The other half of Aileen’s family, the Duncans, followed a similar path as the Streets, escaping Wheeling, West Virginia on a journey that ultimately led them to Canfield. Following the emancipation act in America, many of the black settlers who had come to Canfield returned home or ventured elsewhere in Canada.
Over the years, many members of the Street family were buried on a private cemetery on their church’s grounds, but this was abandoned in the late 1940s. It took until 2017 for Aileen to learn of the burial grounds where her ancestors laid in rest.
Haldimand County held a ceremony at the time to dedicate a cairn at a different, public cemetery in Canfield to the black settlers who had called the area home. Aileen was contacted for this dedication: “That’s when I started doing a lot more digging.”
Aileen attended the ceremony with members of her church, who sang at the dedication. It was here that Aileen was approached by local resident Michael Konkle asking if she knew about the Street cemetery.
“It was wintertime and I could not go into it because I use a walker, so my cousin went in and she was absolutely blown away,” remembered Aileen, who has now personally visited the site several times with the help of her brother and documentary filmmaker Graeme Bachiu, whose production company Windecker Road Films has produced a six-part documentary series about the site called ‘Canfield Roots’.
“I get emotional about it,” said Aileen, reflecting on her experience bringing some of her family to the site to shoot the final episode of the documentary.
Similar abandoned black cemeteries in Orillia and Collingwood have been restored and maintained. Aileen described an encounter she had while visiting one of those sites: “There was a gentleman who was sitting outside of his truck at a black cemetery, and here was this white man sitting in a lounge chair outside of his truck reading. I asked him why he picked this particular cemetery. He said it’s a part of history, and he finds it peaceful.”
“That’s what I envision the Street cemetery being,” she explained. “Set up so people can go in there and just think and look at the stones and read the messages that are on there and just be able to sit and contemplate about the past history, but also just to be able to pull out a book and read.”
“Growing up I never knew very much about my family history, let alone the black history. We learned about the history in the states and over in Europe. Very little was done here in Canada,” continued Aileen. “I would like to see more about the Canadian history … about the black settlers and even those that are coming in now. I think it’s important that we learn about everyone’s history.”
She concluded, “The history out there in Canfield really needs to be told. Maybe this will start an opening-up about the history of other people not just in Canfield, but in Ontario and in Canada as a whole.”
Be sure to check next week’s paper for a look at what the County is planning to do with the site and a larger look at the issue of abandoned cemeteries in Haldimand County and beyond.