It's 3,305 km north on foot. On back roads, you travel mainly at night when it's somewhat safer. A home or church might offer shelter, but you're constantly tired and hungry; you worry about bounty hunters and their bloodhounds along the way. Finally, there's a wide expanse of river to cross, with a quick and deadly current.
Escape to Canada is perilous for a runaway slave, because it's 1850 and the United States Congress has passed the
Fugitive Slave Act ,
a compromise between Southern slave holders and Northern abolitionists dictating all runaways must be returned to their owner.
Canada was the "promised land" according to
Lezlie Harper Wells, descendant of a fugitive Kentucky slave who successfully made that journey. Wells speaks with passion on her tour. With American tourists and several Toronto teachers wanting to apply this experience to Ontario's secondary school history curriculum, I learn about the
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her 1852 novel,
Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life among the Lowly as a rebuttal to the Slave Act, and some think it added impetus to the 1861-5 Civil War that killed 700,000 Americans.
In Fort Erie's Freedom Park, I stand alongside a calm Lake Erie. A plaque states that from 1830-1860, thousands like Wells' Kentucky ancestor sought sanctuary here, including
Josiah Henson and his family. (Oct. 28, 1830) Stowe's book was patterned on his life. From Fort Erie, we cover several of Niagara's many Freedom Trail sites and exhibits, but this is one of the busiest crossings because Buffalo was a key U.S. terminal.
"The Crossing" is a plaque erected in the South End, amidst Fort Erie's Chinese restaurants. Another commemorates the Bertie Street Ferry Landing 1796-1950 with an illustration of a vessel which carried blacks to freedom across the Niagara River at night. The quick current would deter the strongest swimmer. No bridges then, multiple ferries worked the river from several docks; however, business declined dramatically in 1927 with the construction of the Peace Bridge.
At Fort Erie's "Little Africa," blacks established a makeshift community in the 1840s by supplying lumber to rail and shipping firms. We pause at the small
"Coloured Cemetery," marked with a ragged sign.
Tubman, born into slavery near Bucktown, Maryland around 1820, is a legendary figure and St. Catharines played a key role as her favoured terminal. She laboured as a field slave on a plantation where she endured extreme physical hardship and severe abuse. In 1849, she escaped without her husband to make her trek to freedom. Arriving 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 bravely ventured repeatedly into the U.S. to bring fellow slaves back to St. Catharines.
Her church was known then as
Bethel Chapel AME, a small log building constructed by African-American freedom seekers. A larger church was completed in 1855 to accommodate the growing Methodist congregation arriving via the secret railroad. When AME Churches in Canada changed their names to establish a distinct identity, her church became the BME Church-Salem Chapel, located at 92 Geneva St. (two blocks from downtown).
A designated national historic site, we tour it from top to bottom, particularly the basement, full of memorabilia and old photographs. An 1831 Tubman quote on display captures her amazing 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."
St. Catharines rejuvenated the church property outside with a memorial to Tubman, informative signage and a "Meditation Garden." A "Freedom Wall" was dedicated here on Nov. 4, 1990 by
Lincoln Alexander, Ontario's first black Lieutenant Governor.
Wells ferries us to the nearby
Richard Pierpoint Plaque, located at a park entrance, just off Oakdale Ave., 4 km south of Queenston Street. One of the first black settlers in this region, Pierpoint was born in Senegal and at 16, 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, which we visit 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.
We do not venture to Niagara Falls or Niagara on the Lake, but Wells relates the significance of both. In Niagara Falls at the Lundy's Lane Historical Museum, there is a Canadian Black History exhibit called, "Now let me fly."
The tiny Negro Burial Ground in Niagara on the Lake is easy to miss, on busy Mississauga St. as one enters the Old Town. (Just before Mary St.) A plaque marks the site of a former Baptist Church and burial ground.
In 1793, an
anti-slavery act was passed by the first parliament of Upper Canada and signed into law in Niagara on the Lake. A sculpture on the wall of Parliament Oak School, 325 King St., portrays the event.
At Queenston, there's a Coloured Corps plaque commemorating approximately thirty men, commanded by white officers. Based in Niagara, they fought at Queenston Heights in October, 1812 and at the siege of Fort George in May, 1813. The corps was disbanded after peace, but set a precedent as black units became a feature of the Canadian military until the First World War.
Also in Niagara on the Lake at 507 Butler St., set near several large B&Bs, there sits the tiny William Stewart homestead, built in 1835, designated as a heritage building. Well maintained, it remains one of the few surviving examples of houses built by and for Niagara's early black settlers.
Across the river from NOTL,
Josiah Tryon Jr. was "station master" for Lewiston's railroad. Josiah bravely hid slaves and transported them by boat across the river at night. There are several
historic plaques and statues along the riverfront.
The Niagara Bound Tour ($30) is informative, and helps me realize that Niagara enjoys a formidable history in the emancipation of roughly 100,000 American slaves seeking freedom. For them, Canada surely was the Promised Land!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
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