Just outside of Maidstone, Sask., sits a small log building, the only physical evidence remaining from the first and only African-American farming community in the province.
Those who settled there are known as the Shiloh People, the building once served as a church, a focal point of the tight-knit community.
“The church not only served as a church, but it served as a meeting-house and a place where people could meet,” said Leander Lane, founder of the Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery Restoration Society.
“Black people were excluded from a lot of the white institutions at the time and, coming up from the States, they were not allowed to worship in white churches. They were not allowed to use white community facilities, they had to create their own, so wherever they went that’s one of the first things they did.”
Lane’s great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Lane, was among the community’s original families, settling the area in 1910.
“He was born a slave in Virginia, he was sold as a child, and lived in Mississippi,” Lane said.
Later, seeking freedom from discrimination in the post Civil War era, he was among 12 families who travelled more than 1,600 kilometres from Oklahoma, with the promise of free land.
“There was the Indian Territory and the Oklahoma Territory and they merged to become a state in 1907. A segregationist government was voted in and started creating segregationist laws,” Lane said.
“The government was actually looking for white people to come up and farm the Canadian west but our ancestors, seeing those same ads, decided to start coming across the border.”
The church was built of hand-cut poplar logs and a cemetery at the site contains at least 37 graves of the original settlers, including Lane’s great-grandfather.
“Our family history relates that the white cemetery in Maidstone did not want black people to be buried there so they created Shiloh cemetery to bury him,” Lane said.
Just last year, the historic property received provincial heritage designation by Saskatchewan’s Culture Ministry, a project spearheaded by Lane.
“We’re really grateful to him because that’s the only heritage designation we have here in Saskatchewan for people of African ancestry so that’s wonderful,” said Carol LaFayette-Boyd, executive director of the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum.
Lane also established the Shiloh Baptist Church and Cemetery Restoration Society in 2002 and has since raised thousands of dollars over the years to restore the church to its former glory.
“We reached out as a society to the descendants of the people from Maidstone and everybody we could for donations and grants,” Lane said. “The people really supported us and the money came in.”
Going forward, donations are still being accepted to help maintain the land and finish some of the restoration work, helping to preserve the legacy of the Shiloh people for generations.
The site is open to the public year-round.