Hank Avery receiving the Frederick Johnson Award in 2002
A few years ago I wrote about the Underground Railroad and I mentioned a former neighbour’s name as I had remembered several of his passionate conversations about local black history at my Dad’s home on Miltimore Road in Bromont. *Hank Avery and his wife Linda were teachers at a local school in Cowansville, Quebec at the time and after my Father died I never saw them again.
Years passed and by this time I was living in Oakland, California where I was now a minority in an East Bay neighbourhood. In those days I didn’t write about history, but mostly about social injustice and daily crime in an area that was 85% black and 15% white. But I often thought of Hank as I wrote different essays because I finally understood what he was talking about.
Yesterday I was doing some research on *Sugar Hill, which used to be called Negro Hill, near Knowlton, Quebec. Trying to dig up more facts I somehow came across Hank Avery’s name, and this time it had to do with a historical injustice in a small hamlet in Quebec. In 2002 Avery had been fighting for 9 years to get a Saint-Armand-West slave cemetery recognized and protected. Unfortunately, the site is privately owned and the owners were not, and still not, open to any conversations about digging on their property.
“Nigger Rock” in St. Armand, Quebec
“Nigger Rock” is a large outcrop of rock in a farmer’s cornfield located on what was once the property of Philip Luke, a Loyalist officer who settled in the area after the American Revolution, and arrived with slaves he inherited from his mother. At its base lies a disturbing reminder of a rural community’s past as black slaves were buried there from 1794 until slavery was abolished in 1833.
The former black community is a sensitive subject to some of the townsfolk and many of Saint-Armand’s older residents still recall stories from their parents, or from their childhood. Of course there are some that call the former black-community stories just folklore, and if the stories are true- well to them it’s all dead and buried now. But what about the farmer who bought the former Luke homestead in the 1950s and discovered human remains when he was plowing the mound at the foot of the rock? Doesn’t that count for something?
Of course with an abandoned “black chapel” and burial ground there had to be a community somewhere since the census of 1851 recorded no fewer than 283 black residents in the area. Where did they all live? Where did they go? What happened to them? An account book from the first store in the area lists the names of black men among its customers: “John the Black Man,” for example, and there are many others. A 1908 publication belonging to the Brome Missisquoi Historical Society also refers to “the St. Armand Negro Burying Ground.”
Built in 1819
By 1830 there were about 200 black residents in the area and there are also many referred thoughts that some of the escaped slaves from the United States also found refuge in Saint-Armand in the 1850s via the Underground Railway which had a stop at the old *Methodist Church. Other archival records refer to the cemetery as being on the farm, but small-town politics and the strong resistance of the landowner have thwarted Mr. Avery’s and others efforts.
‘Nigger Rock’ is located south of Saint-Armand, Quebec, near the Vermont border.
Photo Credit: Flickr/CBC / Gilles Douaire
So what happened to this original African American Community? No one is certain how many slaves laboured for Colonel Luke, or when they died, but estimates are that as many as 30 were buried on the former Luke property. I am positive they probably formed their own community and became active members in the building and opening up of the Eastern Township region of Quebec. They worked, lived and celebrated as equals, and some in the local area are probably even descended from this former black community. So why is this area and the rock not recognized historically?
Today we are a few days away from 2017 and Don Phillips is still fighting to get the area formally recognized as a historical site. After days of researching I cannot find out any other mention of Hank Avery, the former elementary school teacher who first visited the burial ground in 1996 and was outraged when he realized there were no markers on it. What happened to *Mr. Avery? ( Found him thanks to the Eastern Townships Facebook Board)
One thing is certain– if the new law by the Quebec Toponymy Commission goes through; all might have been fought for not. The basis of this new law says place names that contain a racial slur must go. But, will changing the names help remove black history from Quebec? As one commentator said:
“I think the rivers and sites should be researched and renamed after Underground Railroad families and individuals from the area that helped African-Americans to escape to freedom. This will preserve the history and remind us of our noble legacy of doing the right thing, even when the “right thing” isn’t popular at the time”.
The truth is you always know what the right thing is to do- the hard part is doing it.
If you would like to read more about this subject–BIRDIE The Saga of Nigger Rock– Danny B McAuley has books available by Bee Santori aka Grandpa Bob at @Brome Lake Books or you can contact Bee and get them directly from him: https://beesblurb.wordpress.com/about/
Hank Avery was featured in this video..
*Sugar Hill which used to be called Negro Hill got its name from a negro settler of the name of Tom Peters, who had a family and lived opposite Wm. Knowlton’s house. Peters afterward moved to the little hill through which the road has been cut on Levi Whitman’s big farm near Knowlton. This hill was called “Tom Hill.”
*The bi-annual Frederick Johnson Award to honour an individual or a non-profit organization that has achieved outstanding results in fighting racism. Its 2002 recipient was Mr. Hank Avery, an African Canadian teacher in St-Armand-Phillipsburg, Quebec who mobilized local citizens for the recognition of a Black slaves’ cemetery in that region. Mr. Avery now lives in Bedford , Quebec.
*Philipsburg United Church
- Philipsburg was known as the gateway to the Townships. In the period of the American Revolution, travelers used the Champlain waterway to establish settlements in the Eastern Townships.
- The church was built in 1819, today it stands as the oldest establishment in Canada that still is used as a place of worship.
- During the battle of Moore’s Corner (1837 Rebellion) the church was used by the militia as a storing facility for arms and ammunition. Many soldiers used the church has their base for food and shelter.
- In the 1860’s many slave refugees from the American South found a haven in the homes of the congregation, it was a stop in the Underground Railway.
- From the pulpit, the preacher was once able to see straight down to the waters of the bay when the doors were open. Today it still can be done, but has become harder with the growths of community and nature.
- Philipsburg United Church is located at or near 299 Montgomery in Philipsburg (Saint-Armand), Quebec, which is at the very top of the street.
Come and visit the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page– what’s there? Cool old photos–and lots of things interesting to read.
Information where you can buy all Linda Seccaspina’s books-You can also read Linda in Hometown News
Being Buried on Farmland ( Ontario facts)