Why it’s vital to preserve Niagara’s black history
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO—Lezlie Harper Wells looks onto Fort Mississauga with awe. She has strolled passed golfers who tee off on the property adjacent to the nearly 200-year-old edifice that stands lonely and vacant of visitors on the Niagara River. It’s by no means a massive structure. The squat square building with a flat roof can be circled in about two minutes. For Harper Wells, though, the legacy of Fort Mississauga feels eternal.
The “Coloured Corps,” a group of black soldiers who fought for the British during the War of 1812, constructed the fort, building it in the middle of the night while the Americans were dangerously close at Fort Niagara across the river. Many of those 40 or so black soldiers were former slaves who found their freedom in what was then the colony of Upper Canada. Their imprints on Niagara and the rest of the country remain, as their presence challenged their white neighbours to create an inclusive society.
“I get so emotional when I come up here and think that Freedom Seekers built this place,” says Harper Wells, a descendant of slaves from Kentucky who arrived in Fort Erie in 1853 and stayed in the Niagara Region. Harper Wells, who lives in nearby St. Catharines, operates Niagara Bound Tours, which covers all of the usual attractions in the area but also the many, many sites related to the Underground Railroad, the daring abolitionist movement that helped thousands of runaway slaves find freedom in the British colonies north of the United States.
“I am passionate about the history of the blacks in the Niagara region because they are my relatives, many of them,” says Harper Wells, who hosts about 2,000 people for her Underground Railroad tours each year. “Every community in Niagara has a story to tell about the history of slavery and the abolition movement. These weren’t just po’ black folk, they were amazing people.”
According to Parks Canada, the Coloured Corps fought for the British at Queenston Heights under a white commanding officer, Robert Runchey. Freed blacks also worked with white samaritans in operating the Underground Railroad. Fugitives like Harper Wells’ relatives needed luck and assistance as they bolted for freedom, often during December, when their owners were most likely to be away from plantations, traveling to see relatives for the holidays.
“These were extraordinary people whose stories haven’t been told,” says Wilma Morrison, a staunch promoter of black history in Canada. At 82, Morrison remains ferocious about spreading the word of a legacy that she says is woefully underappreciated.
Like Harper Wells, she implores young people to remember what happened in Niagara in the 19th century and how it resonates today. In a nation that often struggles for an identity, Canada should look more closely at the Underground Railroad as a key to the foundation of its values. The inclusiveness that arose from the early abolition of slavery is a force attracting immigrants from around the world, several of whom are eager to find opportunity and freedom from persecution, the same reasons that drew about 40,000 one-time slaves here.
The first anti-slavery legislation in the British empire was signed on July 9, 1793 in Newark, this tiny city’s former name and the site of Upper Canada’s first parliament under lieutenant-governor John Graves Simcoe. A mural on the side of the Parliament Oak School (325 King St.), where some deliberations over the legislation were supposedly heard, commemorates the event that outlawed the addition of new slaves to Upper Canada and granted freedom at age 25 to the future children of slaves present in the colony. By 1810, slavery was mostly gone from Upper Canada and the exodus from the south was on.
Among the most important abolitionists was Harriet Tubman, the iconic woman who returned time and again to the U.S. after reaching Canada herself. She is credited by many historians for leading about 300 slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. She used St. Catharines as her home base, but in Niagara-on-the-Lake there is a small sculpture outside the Parliament Oak School that honours her. The sculpture includes an inscription of the words she reportedly spoke when she reached freedom in Niagara Falls: “When I found I had crossed, there was such a glory over everything I felt I was in Heaven. I am free and they shall be free. I shall bring them here.”
Most all blacks, including Tubman, returned to the U.S. once slavery was abolished there. Their hope was to rejoin family, Harper Wells and Morrison say. According to “Slavery and Freedom in Niagara”, a book published by the Niagara Historical Society, there were 104 blacks, or 3.7 per cent of the population, living in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1861. By 1881, that number had dwindled to 21. (The 2006 census lists 85 blacks among Niagara-on-the-Lake’s population of 14,380 residents.) A Negro burial ground sits on a plot of land on Mississauga Road, a main thoroughfare in the city. It’s easier to notice the convenience store over the fence than the plaque and headstones.
“If this was America, monuments would have been built to these people,” Morrison says of the black pioneers in Canada. “This history would be so touted.”
As it is, Harper Wells says keeping it alive is the main priority, especially with the bicentennial of the War of 1812 approaching and the opportunities that presents for remembering the Coloured Corps’ contributions. “We’re scrambling to get the word out before this history dies.”
That goal isn’t only for the benefit of blacks, as Ron Dale, a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident and Parks Canada superintendent, points out.
“It strikes me that this country was built, defended, enriched and maintained by all of its inhabitants no matter what their social or ethnic background,” he says. “To understand the stories, you have to look at all aspects and all angles and not think of Aboriginal history, black history or white history but simply history.”