North to Canada - and freedom
ST. CATHARINES, ONTARIO — They came by the thousands, hidden in boxes and hay wagons or as stowaways on ships heading north, searching for a freedom that couldn't be taken from them.
Throughout the early 1800s slaves from the southern United States slipped their bonds and followed the North Star to freedom. Some settled in Northern states, while a few continued north into Upper Canada, now known as Ontario.
In 1850, with the enactment of the second Fugitive Slave Act, the trickle of fugitives crossing into Canada turned into a river. The secretive nature of what was known as the Underground Railroad makes it difficult to establish exact numbers, but what evidence does exist suggests at least 35,000 of these refugees crossed the border, while some place the number at more than 50,000.
Today, ancestors of these refugees are preserving their memory in the Niagara region with a variety of displays and attractions throughout the area.
Begin at Bertie Hall, a stop on the Underground Railroad in Fort Erie. Just across the Peace Bridge from Buffalo, N.Y., the house was the first thing many fugitives saw after they crossed the border. The building's basement was accessed though a tunnel and is now an evocative display, equal parts artifact and emotion.
From there, visitors can drive north along the Niagara Parkway on a tour of historical plaques commemorating crossing points, settlements, and significant people and events.
One such plaque, a few miles past Horseshoe Falls and near a towering monument to War of 1812 hero Gen. Isaac Brock in Queenston, honors the Coloured Corps. This unit of black soldiers served with the British in the War of 1812, then acted as a security force during the building of the Welland Canal. In fact, in 1849 the Corps is credited with breaking up a battle between rival Irish factions working on the canal.
The Battle of Slabtown, as it was known, is commemorated with a display at the St. Catharines Museum, which is perched on the side of the Welland Canal.
The influx of slaves began in the 1790s when the governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, abolished slavery in the Canadian territories. While not necessarily a haven of tolerance and inclusion, this area offered an escape from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1791, which required escaped slaves discovered in the Northern US states to be returned to their owners.
While the first version of this act was largely ignored, a similar act, passed in 1850, contained harsher penalties for those aiding the fugitives and applied even to the Northern-born children and grandchildren of escaped slaves.
That meant a former fugitive or his family "had no more rights than the slave in the fields," observes Wilma Morrison, curator of the Norval Johnson Heritage Library in Niagara Falls. "He could be snatched or his children could be snatched and could be returned to the South and sold into slavery."
The Norval Johnson Heritage Library is home to a wide selection of African-American history books, photographs, posters, and a display detailing the military contributions of African-Canadians.
It is also next door to the R. Nathaniel Dett British Episcopal Church, a house of worship built by some of the former slaves.
Other than the avocado-colored siding, the small church sitting at the corner of Peel Street and Grey Avenue is, at first glance, unremarkable. Located in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood in sight of the landmark Skylon Tower and other traditional tourist attractions, the building bears a plaque briefly detailing its construction in 1836 by former slaves. However, once visitors who have made appointments are inside the church and library, they are treated to a lively presentation by Ms. Morrison.
In St. Catharines, the Black Methodist Episcopal Church Salem Chapel at the corner of Geneva and North streets was also built by fugitives and used by, among others, Harriet Tubman as an Underground Railroad destination point.
It is home to a book collection dating back to 1837 and display cases filled with artifacts celebrating the church's role in the Underground Railroad. Tours are available by appointment only, but visitors are welcome to attend the regular 11 a.m. Sunday service, after which many in the congregation would be willing to conduct a personal tour.
Among those who might guide you is Rochelle Bush, a young woman with a passion for the history and legacy of the black community. She is also historical director of the facility.
The church is built on part of a 200-acre property granted to Richard Pierpont, a fugitive slave who petitioned the British government for land in exchange for military service for Britain - first during the American Revolution and then during the War of 1812.
He is honored with a plaque located at the edge of Oakdale Avenue's Centennial Gardens, a park tucked behind the St. Catharines General Hospital.
Ms. Bush also acts as a guide for bus tours, often for family or church organizations looking to track the family members who sought freedom in Canada, then moved back to the United States after the Civil War.
In fact, Morrison estimates as many as 70 percent of those who settled in Canada returned to America.
What both Morrison and Bush share with visitors are the stories and the contributions the displaced former slaves made to the region. And some of the names read like a who's who of early black history.
First and foremost, Harriet Tubman is known to have rented rooms in a boarding house that once stood behind the St. Catharines BME Church.
The St. Catharines Museum has documents listing the tiny, shadowy figure as a resident of the city during the 1850s while she worked as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, ferrying fugitives to the relative safety of Canada.
In addition, the churches are said to have hosted the likes of the fiery abolitionist John Brown and Anthony Burns, whose return to slavery, thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act, caused a riot in Boston in 1854.
Black history is a comparatively new topic in Niagara, but every year ongoing research and study add more to what is becoming a rich and detailed tapestry.
In some cases, this will require careful archaeological work, like researching the property behind the BME Church in St. Catharines, which was part of that city's early black settlement.
In others, the research is genealogical, tracing countless names and photographs through yellowed books and documents.
"There are little nuggets of information all over," says Bush. "The routes are just becoming uncovered now. That's what historians and archaeologists are [discovering] now."
What exists today across Niagara is a tribute to the thousands of escaped slaves who crossed into Canada, and the thousands more whose flight ended in capture or death before they could taste freedom.
Bush believes their spirit is embodied in the silhouetted figure depicted on the street sign in front the R. Nathaniel Dett British Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls and on a host of other markers, which symbolize the quest for freedom.
"This is courage," she says, pointing to the symbol. "This is self-determination. This is a distinct breed who naturally had the courage to seek their freedom."