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Grey asked to create interpretive space next to Black pioneer cemetery

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With Grey County council set to vote Thursday to formally abandon plans to build a transportation depot on property next to a Black pioneer cemetery, the committee overseeing the historic site is urging the county to still buy the adjacent land, but for a commemorative space.

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Naomi Norquay, president of the Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery committee, said in a letter to county officials Tuesday that the group joins a “growing number of interested community members” in recommending the county purchase the property adjacent to the Priceville-area cemetery to establish a commemorate and interpretive space for Grey County’s historic Black settlement and settlers.

“We really want the county to take some ownership and leadership in this area of heritage,” Norquay said in an interview.

The space could include a walking trail and interpretive signs, the letter says. Indigenous plants could re-establish on the land after 170 years of agricultural use and the space could serve as a welcoming area for cemetery visitors.

Creating the space “would go a long way in promoting Black history and healing a long-festering community wound,” the letter says.

Norquay said there is “widespread support” for the community-generated initiative, with some suggesting a GoFundMe campaign be established to help raise money for the land purchase.

The committee is asking for a meeting with county officials to discuss ways to bring the proposal to fruition.

Grey County Warden Selwyn Hicks said council will discuss the proposal, which he suspects will be sent to a county committee to develop a recommendation.

“Grey has a long history of participation and promotion of Black history, specifically through Grey Roots and the Emancipation Festival and during Black History Month, and I have expressed our interest in continuing that and perhaps enhancing that,” he said, after receiving the letter.

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“So we’ve made a commitment to sit with the group to talk about moving forward and how we can enhance our involvement in promoting Black history in Grey County because there is a rich story to be told there. What will come out of that, I don’t want to prejudge.”

In March, Grey County conditionally offered to purchase a 40-acre property on Durham Road B in Grey Highlands for a new transportation depot.

But, in late May, the county issued a statement saying it had heard concerns raised by the Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery committee and had decided to halt all activity related to the property’s purchase “in order to work with the local community and undertake a thorough investigation of the property.”

In a report that is to be presented to county council Thursday, Grey County CEO Kim Wingrove says county officials were advised the proposed depot site was adjacent to the Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery, which had been a burying ground for Black settlers to the area from about 1851 to the 1880s.

Wingrove said county officials held follow-up meetings with stakeholders, including representatives of the cemetery committee, who said the proposed depot “would not be compatible with the historic and sensitive nature of the cemetery,” the report says.

The county announced in a news release June 15 that staff would be recommending to council that the depot not be located on the site.

Wingrove’s report, which will be presented during a committee of the whole meeting, recommends council direct staff to take no further action towards the purchase of the property and resume the search for a suitable site for the transportation depot.

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Hicks said he hopes the cemetery committee will see the county’s move “as a sign that we are of our word” and that Grey is sincere in its commitment to raise awareness about and celebrate the area’s Black history.

“We very much want to embrace our ongoing relationship in a sign of respect, so that’s what we’re doing. And the future, I think it’s going to be great. What exactly that will mean I think is yet to be determined,” he said.

Located at the corner of Grey Road 14 and Durham Road B, the pioneer cemetery and the Old Durham Road School across the road from it mark what was once a vibrant and successful Black settlement from the late 1840s. The community’s members emigrated as free people or fled slavery to settle in the area and by 1851 the census counted 120 Blacks among the residents of the former Artemesia Township.

The cemetery had been created in the sandy corner of settler Larkin Alverson’s 50-acre land, which he received around 1850.

There had been as many as 80 graves in the burial ground, but knowledge of its existence was all but lost after it was bought in the 1930s, the headstones removed and the land farmed.

The cemetery was reclaimed and it was dedicated in 1990 by Ontario Lt.-Gov. Lincoln Alexander. In 2015, Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdswell officially opened a pavilion where the four remaining headstones from the cemetery are displayed.

The cemetery committee has said the actual burial ground is larger than the current boundaries of the cemetery site.

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