What Travel Writers Say
After the Falls: Niagara's Freedom Trail© By Ann Campbell
If you're standing at the guardrail ogling world-famous Niagara Falls when a spry 75-year-old woman approaches and invites you to visit her church, I strongly recommend you accept. "I just want to tackle visitors sometimes," says Wilma Morrison with a mischievous smile. "I want to run up and say 'Have I got a story to tell you."
Morrison knows that most visitors to her hometown focus on the falls (actually three falls, the most spectacular being Horseshoe Falls). And rightly so. They are awesome, whether viewing from below on a Maid of the Mist boat ride, descending in elevators to see from beside and behind in the Journey Behind the Falls or simply standing on the rim at the Table Rock Complex. Even away from the falls there are umpteen diversions, from an engaging Butterfly Conservatory and worth-the-price IMAX film about Niagara Falls to a row of tacky museums and fast-food outlets on neon-lit Clifton Hill.
But there's another story in this town, one that Morrison and others are eager to tell.
It is the story of African Americans -- fugitive slaves, indentured workers and British Loyalists -- who came to this corner of Canada, across the Niagara River from the cities of Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, in the 19th century. Historians estimate 40,000 fugitive slaves crossed the international border, the majority by steamboat, ferry, and rowboat or by swimming across the Niagara River. Their rich history is captured in part through a collection of historical sites, interpretive markers and plaques known as Niagara's Freedom Trail.
My first stop on the Trail is Morrison's church, the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church. "This church is the only thing that really states we've been here so long," says Morrison. It is a simple building, constructed by former slaves in 1836 on a site that was so bleak and windy that the congregation nicknamed it "The North Pole." In 1890, the building was rolled on logs to a more suitable parcel of land donated by Oliver Parnall, a parishioner who had swum the Niagara River to freedom years before. The church now designated a National Historic Site, still rests on those logs.
Next door is the Norval Johnson Heritage Library, a former cottage that now houses a 1,200-volume lending library and genealogical database where people can search for information on ancestors who may have escaped to Canada.
Morrison, a highly-respected authority on the region's Black history, acknowledges the challenges faced by those trying to find branches of their family tree in the tracks of the Underground Railroad. "Nothing was written down - that would have been unsafe for the escaping slaves and for those who helped them. To add to the difficulty, slaves took their master's last names, so when they were sold to a different plantation owner, their names would change." Still, many people find clues to their heritage in the library's records. Plans are underway to put the genealogical database on the library's Web site.
Following the advice of my guidebook (Owen Thomas' Niagara's Freedom Trail: A Guide to the African-Canadian History on the Niagara Peninsula, $7.20 US plus postage, call 1-800-263-2988 to order), I drive upriver to the town of Fort Erie. Here, steps from the river's edge, sits a plaque entitled "The Crossing." It commemorates the thousands of fugitive slaves who first arrived on Canadian soil, and so first tasted freedom, on this riverbank.
I follow the Freedom Trail inland to St. Catharines and Salem Chapel, a British Methodist Episcopal church constructed in 1855 in the style of a southern Baptist church. The Chapel, now designated a National Historic Site, has served as a spiritual centre for the region's Black community for over 150 years. It was to here that Harriet Tubman, the courageous Underground Railroad conductor known as "Moses" (because of her repeated journeys south to collect slaves and then guide them to the Promised Land of Canada) brought many refugees. And it was here that Tubman worshipped for eight years prior to the start of the U.S. Civil War.
Rochelle Bush, the historical director of the church and a descendant of fugitive slaves from Virginia on her father's side and South Carolina on her mother's, is passionate about the men, women and children who had the intrepidity to run. "Our ancestors were the defiant, the rebels, the courageous," says Bush. She invites me to Sunday service at 11:00 a.m.
The next day, strolling beside Niagara Falls, I'm reminded of something else Bush said about the responsibility we all share to honour those who came before: "We are the keepers of the culture. We are the speakers for the dead."
I'm sure Wilma Morrison would agree. And truth be told, when I spy a group of camera-touting tourists stepping off a sightseeing bus, I want to run up and shout, "Have I got a story for you."
Ann Campbell is a freelance travel writer, based in Vancouver, BC. Her award-winning stories (she's received four travel writing prizes in recent years) appear in newspapers and magazines across North America including The Vancouver Sun, Oregonian, Georgia Straight, Globe & Mail, Western Living, AAA Living, Canadian Family and more.
Ann Campbell: A safe house, one of the Underground Railroad sites on the Freedom Trail in Niagara Falls, Wilma Morrison, a local authority on black history, in front of her church that was constructed in 1836 by former slaves, Bertie Hall is said to have been a safe house for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.
If you go
Bertie Hall: www.angelfire.com/biz/DollHouseGallery/, call 905-871-5833.
Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel and Library: www.norvaljohnson.com call 905-358-9957.
Historical Fiction: Children visiting Niagara Falls will be entranced by The Last Safe House: A story of the Underground Railroad (Barbara Greenwood, $9.95 US, Kids Can Press, 1998). This fictional account of a St. Catharines' family who helps a young runaway slave offers up historically-accurate information, illustrations and engaging activities.
Salem Chapel: To organize a tour, call 905-682-0993.
Underground Railroad: Historical and touring information on sites throughout southern Ontario, including Niagara's Freedom Trail: www.ontariotravel.net, search "Black Heritage Route."
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