Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery
Eldon District, North of Maidstone, Saskatchewan

 

 "...There are spruce trees there
And a graveyard
They dig the graves
Even though the ground is hard"

From, "A little Church"by Willis Mayes

The history of black immigration to Canada is a topic which has, until quite recently, been largely ignored by historians in this country. But, thanks to the efforts of their descendants, and historians of all ethnic backgrounds, the stories of these immigrants are now being told and their place in the historical fabric of this country is being recognised.

Between 1905 and 1911, African American families began travelling north to Canada from Oklahoma seeking the promise of free homestead land and freedom from the discriminatory "Jim Crow" laws which had been enacted following Oklahoma statehood. In the spring of 1910, dozens of these families arrived in Saskatchewan. Twelve families settled in the Eldon District north of Maidstone, the rest carried on to found the community of Amber Valley in Northern Alberta. By 1911, the families at Eldon had started building the church which would become one of the centres of their community. In 1913, Julius Caesar Lane became the first person to be laid to rest in the Shiloh Baptist Church cemetery. In 1916, the deed for the church and cemetery was granted to the community which would eventually become known as the "Shiloh People", named in honour of the little log building in which they worshipped(1).

 

 Interior of the Shiloh Baptist Church

Although the free homestead land had been granted to the original immigrants, the promise of freedom from discriminatory laws and racist practices did not materialise. In 1911 a Government of Canada Order in Council tried to prohibit black immigration stating that "...any immigrants belonging to the Negro race..is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada"(2). The establishment of the cemetery at the Shiloh Baptist Church can, in itself, be seen as a consequence of the reluctance of the surrounding communities to allow burials of African American immigrants in their cemeteries (3). The old log church was an active social and religious centre, but eventually (as is the case with many immigrant communities) descendants of the original families began to disperse throughout the continent. In the 1920s and 30s, there had been as many as 50 black families living at Eldon but, In the 1940s, the church closed with the last burials in the cemetery taking place in 1945-46. In 1975, however, special permission was granted to bury George H. Mayes in the old cemetery. In 1987, George's wife Lucille became the last person buried there and the cemetery was closed forever.

The members of the Shiloh Baptist Church had followed many of the traditional practices found in African American cemeteries in the United States.Graves, for the most part, were marked by placing a large stone at the head and foot of the grave (a well known photograph by Dorthea Lange titled Negro Cemetery at Prospect Church, shows similar grave marking techniques in North Carolina). An example of this marking technique can be seen in the photograph below.

 

 Graves of Alfred Bailey, Cora Bailey, Abraham Lewis and Queenie Lewis
showing original stone markers at head and foot of graves

The white crosses visible in the photographs on this page were erected in 1971 during the local homecoming celebrations. At the same time, a large number of the original stone markers were removed and tossed over the fence in an effort to "clean up" the cemetery in preparation for the upcoming celebrations. Unfortunately, stories like this are all too common in cemetery preservation. Very well meaning people have often caused irreparable damage by attempting to restore cemeteries without proper preparatory research.

More recently, the descendants of the "Shiloh People" have formed the Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery Restoration Society which is taking great care in its efforts to preserve and restore the church and cemetery. Through the efforts of this society, and the involvement of Arlene Frolick of the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society, the names of those buried in the cemetery have been re-discovered following the loss of the original church ledgers in the 1950s. A cairn has now been erected honouring those resting in the cemetery and plans are now being made for the restoration of the old log church itself. The Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery was designated a provincial historic site in 1991. You can contact the society's president, Leander K. Lane, for further information about the plans for the church and cemetery.

 

Footnotes:

(1)The name "Shiloh People" was not coined until 1971. In the early days, the community at Eldon was referred to as "The Negro" or "Coloured district" or even "The nigger district".

(2)In September of that year, the Liberal government of the day was thrown out and the order in council never became law.

(3)On the other hand, one of the black families said that they survived their early years at Eldon due to the generosity of their white neighbors.

 

 

Other readings about the Shiloh community:

Further reading on black immigration to Canada:

 

Special thanks to Leander K. Lane for his help with this page