Dominic Soulié is the President of the newly-formed Centre historique de Saint-Armand, which has been working to have the black heritage of Saint-Armand recognized. In honour of Black History Month, Actions interculturelles of Sherbrooke recently asked Soulié to speak at the Éva-Senécal Library.
The topic of Soulié's presentation was the history of black slaves in the Eastern Townships, specifically the Saint-Armand area. Saint-Armand has received a great deal of attention in recent years for the large outcrop of rock known as "Nigger Rock," which, according to local tradition, was a burial ground for slaves two centuries ago. The "Rock" is located on what was once the property of Philip Luke, a Loyalist officer who settled in the area after the American Revolution, and who, documents show, arrived with slaves he inherited from his mother.
Speaking with conviction, Soulié described how he first heard about "Nigger Rock." He explained how he met Hank Avery, Bedford's only black resident, the man who began the whole movement to have "Nigger Rock" recognized as a historic site. He told of the frustration that Avery and others have experienced trying to convince government officials as well local landowners of the importance of the site, which, he believes, is significant not merely locally but nationally. "Nigger Rock," he said, is the only known burial ground in Canada for blacks who were born and died in slavery.
Soulié, Avery, and others have had some success. The media attention surrounding Avery's much publicized campaign, together with an award he received last year from the black community in Montreal, have helped. Now the group has the backing of the historical society they helped to form, and increasingly, of the Town of Saint-Armand, which until recently was reluctant to get involved.
The problem is that slavery, two centuries later, is still a touchy subject in Saint-Armand. Soulié said that the subject has been a taboo one literally for generations. A number of families in Saint-Armand actually bear the same last names as slaves who, from surviving records, are known to have lived in the area. This, Soulié said, has led some to believe that the black community never died out, but merely intermarried with the white community. Some people in the area, he believes, may well be descended from slaves, who were, after all, among the area's earliest pioneers.
Another obstacle has been that "Nigger Rock" is on private property. Soulié said that landowners are worried about an onslaught of "pilgrims" trampling their fields. These people are farmers, so the land is their livelihood. But "we don't want to alienate these people," he stressed. "We want to work with them. We want to bring this part of our history out of the shadows -- which is where it has been hidden for two centuries."
To date, most of the evidence concerning "Nigger Rock" and the black community in Saint-Armand is either circumstantial or based on oral tradition. However, as Soulié pointed out, "oral tradition" is increasingly being recognized, even in the courts, as carrying weight. And the oral tradition surrounding "Nigger Rock" is very strong among Saint-Armand's older residents, some of whom still recall stories from their parents or from their childhood about the old slave burial ground or about the blacks in Saint-Armand.
But there is much more to black Saint-Armand than an old slave cemetery, Soulié explained. There is a stone structure, known in local lore as the black chapel. It is crumbling and dilapidated and has been abandoned for decades. The Centre historique de Saint-Armand would like to purchase and restore it. The idea would be to transform the site into an interpretative centre. The group (which includes members from far afield, including the U.S.) hopes to raise $50,000 towards the project.
"JOHN THE BLACK MAN"
Other evidence points to a strong black presence in the area. Soulié noted the existence of a number of old lime kilns and the remains of what may prove to be the long sought after black village in the woods not far from "Nigger Rock." And there must have been a village somewhere, he explained, since the census of 1851 recorded no fewer than 283 blacks in the area. Where did they all live? A surviving account book from the first store in Saint-Armand lists the names of a number of black men among its customers: "John the Black Man," for example, and others. There is also the long-standing tradition that escaped slaves from the United States found refuge in Saint-Armand via the Underground Railway. A plaque at the old Methodist Church in Philipsburg testifies to this fact.
Oral history and fragmentary evidence aside, some scholarly research has been conducted on the subject. University of Montreal anthropologist Roland Viau has been studying the evidence since 1998, when he was first commissioned to do so by the Government of Québec. Historian Michel Trudel is also involved. There is much work yet to be done, however, a fact which everyone involved acknowledges.
Of particular urgency, Soulié explained, is a thorough archaeological study of the burial ground. This, he said, should be conducted "before any more damage is done to the site, damage like the irrigation ditch that was recently dug not far from 'Nigger Rock.' "
In the meantime, Soulié and his group are keeping a close eye on the site. They are also continuing their efforts to have "Nigger Rock" recognized. A special exhibition on slavery is planned for this weekend, February 22-23, and will be open to the public from 1 to 6 p.m. Titled "Visages de l'esclavage, de la traite aux abolitions," it is being organized with the help of Images interculturelles of Montreal, and will take place at the Saint-Armand Community Hall, 444 ch. Bradley, Saint-Armand. Light refreshments will be served.
On February 24, a special press conference is scheduled to take place in Saint-Armand on the future of "Nigger Rock." Quebec's Immigration minister has announced that he will be attending. The event, which is not open to the public, may help decide the future of "Nigger Rock."