February is Black History Month, adopted by parliament in 1996 as a celebration of the chronicles and accomplishments of Black Canadians.
Niagara Parks is hosting a virtual speaker series this winter, exploring perspectives on Black history and culture in Canada. On March 31, local historian Rochelle Bush will provide a live-streamed, interactive presentation on the theme, “Self-liberated and famous: fugitive freedom seekers escape to Niagara.”
Born and raised in St. Catharines, Bush is the proprietor of Tubman Tours Canada, and the resident historian of the Salem Chapel, on Geneva Street in St. Catharines. The church has a British Methodist Episcopal (BME) affiliation, and is designated as a national historic site as part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad, a network of abolitionists and safe houses which provided a route to Canada and freedom.
“John Wesley, the English evangelist who led a revival movement within the Church of England known as Methodism, fought for the abolition of the slave trade, and accordingly most slaves of African descent gravitated towards Methodism because of Wesley’s teachings,” said Bush.
Harriet Tubman Day has been celebrated in America for 31 years, in recognition of an iconic woman who helped bring hundreds of slaves to freedom in Canada. Herself born into slavery in 1822, Tubman made her way to St. Catharines, where she ran a boarding house for escapees. She resided in Niagara for less than a decade, beginning in the early 1850s, but her influence was significant in the Black community, said Bush. Tubman completed over a dozen missions back to the US to lead groups of slaves to freedom, often crossing into Canada over the suspension bridge on the Niagara River, which was built in 1855.
The Underground Railroad, which was active between 1840 and 1860, had two primary lines: the Eastern Shore line, through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York; and the Western line, by way of Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan. The main terminus was Detroit, with a crossing over into Windsor. Approximately 30,000 slaves were able to escape along one of these routes. Tubman was known to most Blacks as “Moses,” which was her code name as a conductor on the Railroad.
Fittingly, former US president George H. Bush declared March 10 in Tubman’s honour, and the City of St. Catharines, under then-Mayor Joe McCaffery, was unique in Canada in also proclaiming Harriet Tubman Day on that date. Tubman passed away on March 10, 1913.
President Joe Biden’s government is working to accelerate the process of adding Tubman’s portrait to the front of the US $20 bill, replacing Andrew Jackson. The Obama administration set the concept in motion in 2016, but the Trump administration allowed the initiative to lapse.
On her paternal side, Rochelle Bush’s forebears arrived in 1830 and settled in Oro, on the northwestern shores of Lake Simcoe. Her great-great grandfather’s oldest son, John Jackson, married a woman of French lineage from Grimsby, and moved to Pelham in 1862. On her maternal side, Bush’s mother’s family travelled from South Carolina, as free blacks. Her great-great grandfather was a clergyman, who led the Salem Chapel during Tubman’s stay in St. Catharines. With the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act in America, which required that slaves be returned to their owners even if they were in a free state, he went back to South Carolina to retrieve his wife and children, and ultimately settled in St. Catharines.
“Tubman said she didn’t trust Uncle Sam with her people any longer, so she brought them all up to Canada,” Bush told the Voice. “The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act empowered the federal government to hire bounty hunters, and judges were on the take — it was a rigged system.”
Bush characterized Tubman as a deeply religious woman, who spoke to God on a daily basis, asking for guidance. By 1855, St. Catharines had 123 black families, thanks largely to Tubman’s efforts. Her fame amongst American Blacks grew to the point where US slave owners posted a $40,000 reward for her capture or corpse.
The first anti-slavery legislation in the British empire was signed in 1793 in Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, the first capital of Upper Canada, the modern-day Ontario) by lieutenant-governor John Graves Simcoe. The act outlawed slavery in the colony, and granted freedom to the children of former slaves. By 1810, slavery had disappeared from the province, and consequently it was a lightning rod for American slaves seeking their freedom north of the border.
Many free Blacks in Upper Canada were familiar with agriculture, having worked on farms and plantations in the American South. They found work as labourers on Niagara farms, and some managed to become prosperous business owners.
In a press release, Premier Doug Ford praised Black History Month as, “a time to honour the legacy of all Ontarians of African descent, past and present, and their remarkable contributions to our province’s history, culture, and social fabric. Our strength as a province comes from our diversity and inclusiveness, and we will continue to build an Ontario free of discrimination and hate.”
In the 2016 census, Pelham had a recorded population of 17,110, with only 50 residents self-identified as Black. Much larger Black populations were recorded in St. Catharines (3715) and Niagara Falls (1735).
Tickets ($15) for Rochelle Bush’s online presentation, “Self-liberated and famous: Fugitive freedom seekers escape to Niagara,” March 31, 7 PM, are available at niagaraparks.com/blackhistory