Black History Month concludes with a moving presentation of Potter’s Field at Bruce County Museum

As February Black History Month drew to a close for another year, the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre hosted a speakers’ lecture on Saturday, February 25th, featuring Aly Boltman in-person and Dorothy Abbott virtually.

Boltman, and Abbott of the Grey County Black Cultural Society, presented the work that lead to the recognition of the 1,200 people who were buried in unmarked graves in Owen Sound Potter’s Field.

Boltman, a researcher and author who lives in Owen Sound, presented an enlightened look at the early black settlers who arrived in Owen Sound via the Underground Railroad.

As the northernmost terminal used by those escaping slavery in the United States, Owen Sound became home, and by the 1920s, they made up 20 per cent of the population of the community.

Having arrived in Canada, many black settlers faced systematic racism and their lives of unfortunate poverty eventually lead to burial in Potter’s Field.

Through the ages, a potter’s field is a paupers’ grave or common grave where those who were unknown, unclaimed or indigent poor people were buried and, in Owen Sound Potter’s Field, there are more than 1,200 former residents who were relegated to funerals of little consequence.

Boltman’s life-long interest in cemeteries began at the age of 15 in Toronto when, on her way home from school, she discovered a tiny cemetery wedged between two homes.

The church was built in 1833, one of the first churches in what is now the City of Toronto. It was also the first church built in Hoggs Hollow.  Struggling with membership numbers as far back as the 1860s, when it had just six women as parishoners, it became known as “The Church of the Six Sisters.”

It was in the little cemetery that Boltman discovered and was moved by the headstone of a six-year-old child.  The cemetery had become derelict and Boltman, along with a school friend, took it upon themselves to contact the city.  “We were two teenaged girls but we fired off fire-and-brimstone letters and spoke to Council until the city agreed to clean it up and maintain it.”

When Boltman moved to Owen Sound more than 20 years ago, her interest in cemeteries continued and she began to spend time researching Greenwood Cemetery, which eventually lead to Potter’s Field.

Lupercalia Multi-arts Festival was held in Owen Sound in 2018 and Boltman was asked to organize a winter event.  She created the Six-and-Six tour of the Greenwood Cemetery when some 60 people took part in a tour of the cemetery that ended up in Potter’s Field, a field filled with unmarked graves.

photo by Aly Boltman presentation

“In every cemetery,” said Boltman, “there is a section known as a potter’s field for the poor.  In our Potter’s Field, there is an inordinate number of women and children – women who died in child birth and young children from age zero, a 99 year-old woman, twins, a child found drowned – all in a half acre allotted to those too poor to be buried elsewhere.”

There was no monument to those who lay in the unknown graves until resident John Reaburn decided that he wanted to fund a substantial monument to help restore dignity to the people of Potter’s Field. It took two and half years, a lot of community consultation and hard work, but the monument was finally placed in the winter of 2020-2021.  It faces north marking the hopes of those who travelled north to freedom.

(L) Aly Boltman was welcomed by Museum Director Cathy McGirr

“This is a very moving presentation of the people who came to the area looking for a better way of life,” said Bruce Museum Director, Cathy McGirr.  “We are so pleased to have this recognition in Black History Month of Potter’s Field and to appreciate the work that Aly and Dorothy Abbott have contributed to bringing it to fruition.”