By Mike Keenan
In the United States and Canada, “Black History Month” is celebrated in February, and the Niagara Region holds a treasure trove of historical sites that amply demonstrate the significance of the border during the mid-1800s when the Underground Railroad was created to aid and abet fugitive slaves. The Underground Railroad consisted of relatively safe back roads used as “tracks” to transport blacks seeking freedom in the north. Farm wagons were the engines of transportation with homes and churches acting as safe stations along the way.
The Fugitive Slave Act, passed by the United States Congress September 18, 1850, was a compromise between Southern slave holders and Northern abolitionists. By law, all runaway slaves were to be returned their masters. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law.” As a rebuttal, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly, an anti-slavery narrative that some construe helped to pave the way for Civil War. A Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Academy and an active abolitionist, she weaved stories of slaves and slave owners around the character of Uncle Tom, a black slave and a hero who stood up for his beliefs and was reluctantly admired by his enemies.
St. Catharines preserves this history well. At the Welland Canal Centre and St. Catharines Museum at Lock 3, one may explore the history of the Underground Railroad and learn about the African-Canadian community in St. Catharines. There’s information available about notables such as Harriet Tubman, the Coloured Corps’ and others who helped shape the community.
St. Catharines played a key role as the chief terminal for Tubman, born into slavery near Bucktown, Maryland around 1820. She laboured as a field slave on a plantation where she endured extreme physical conditions and severe abuse. In 1849, she escaped without her husband, in search of freedom. When she arrived here in 1851 with eleven other freedom seekers, she met Reverend Hiram Wilson at the AME Church. This became her place of worship for the next seven years while she frequently ventured into the U.S. to help bring fellow slaves back to St. Catharines.
The church was known as Bethel Chapel AME, a small log building constructed by African-American freedom seekers. A larger church was completed in 1855 for the growing Methodist congregation that arrived via the railroad. It was decided that AME Churches in Canada should change their name to establish distinct identity; some became the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church.
Accordingly, the St. Catharines AME Church was named BME Church-Salem Chapel. Located at 92 Geneva St. (two blocks from downtown), it’s designated as a national historic site, and the basement is full of memorabilia and old photographs. An 1831 Tubman quote on display captures her spirit: “When I found that I had crossed, there was such a glory over everything. I felt as if I was in Heaven, I am free and they shall be free, I shall bring them here.”
At the church property, outside there is a memorial to Tubman, informative signage and a “Meditation Garden.” A “Freedom Wall” was dedicated on Nov. 4, 1990 by Lincoln Alexander, Ontario’s first black Lieutenant Governor.
The Richard Pierpoint Plaque, located at a park entrance, just off Oakdale Ave., 4 km south of Queenston Street honours one of the first black settlers in this region, Pierpoint was born in Senegal and at 16, was imprisoned and shipped to America as the slave of a British officer. During the American Revolution, he enlisted in the British forces, gained freedom, and served with Butler’s Rangers. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, he fought in the Coloured Corps, later receiving a St. Catharines land grant in recognition of military service to the crown.
St. Catharines boasts yet another historical marker, Anthony Burns’ gravesite at Victoria Lawn Cemetery, 432 Queenston St. A provincial historical plaque honours his memory as the last person tried under the Fugitive Slave Act in Massachusetts. He escaped from Virginia in 1854, and the verdict which returned him to slavery, incited street riots. Subsequently, Boston abolitionists bought his freedom and educated him before he settled here in St. Catharines in 1860 to become pastor at Zion Baptist Church.
Niagara enjoys a formidable history in the emancipation of roughly 100,000 American slaves who sought freedom during those hazardous days. For them, Canada surely was the Promised Land!
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