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Underground Railroad the focus of St. Catharines Museum exhibit for Black History Month

by Ibrahim Daair, Municipal World
in Arts and Culture
February, 2023

The St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre is launching an exhibit this month that will allow people to explore the history of the city’s Black communities.

The exhibit, called Last Stop: In Their Own Words, aims to challenge traditional narratives of the local settlement freedom-seekers in St. Catharines in the 1850s. Opening Feb. 25, it focuses on what happened after people fleeing slavery reached St. Catharines.

City staff hope the exhibit will raise awareness about Black history in St. Catharines.

“It’s a deep-rooted history,” said Abbey Stansfield, Museum Public Programmer with the City of St. Catharines. “And that’s why we have different experiences to help parcel out the information.”

The museum is also providing online content to educate the public about St. Catharines’ Black history. Every February, the museum creates a blog series featuring articles and podcasts and virtual tours.

Creating Awareness around Black History

St. Catharines was known as the last stop on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad and the Niagara Freedom Trail was a network of people who hid and guided Black people who were fleeing slavery in the United States.

For many freedom-seekers, the Canadian stretch of the railroad began on the banks of the Niagara River near Fort Erie and ended at Salem Chapel, a British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines.

St. Catharines became a centre for abolitionists. Harriet Tubman is one of the most well-known people associated with the Underground Railroad and St. Catharines. Tubman moved to Canada after the U.S. passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. She resided in St. Catharines from late 1851 to early 1862.

The Act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state, but the St. Catharines Black community continued to grow after the act was passed. Historians estimate that between 30,000 and 40,000 Black people fled to Canada through the Underground Railroad.

“Because of the Fugitive Act, a lot of people came to Canada but wanted to put some distance between them and the border,” said Stansfield. “So [they] would come to settlements like St. Catharines.”

Preserving Black History

The Salem Chapel is widely considered one of the oldest – if not the oldest – Black church in Ontario. The chapel near downtown St. Catharines is a significant monument of Black history in Canada. The chapel was founded by the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1820. From 1851, the church was known as the Bethel Chapel. In 1957, the church was renamed Salem Chapel.

In 1999, the Salem Chapel received a national historic designation by the Government of Canada. Harriet Tubman received a national designation in 2005.

The Chapel received a $100,000 grant in 2021 through the federal government’s Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative. The funds are earmarked for much needed repairs. The initiative aims to support research and provide funds to build and improve local spaces and organizations.

“We’re very happy we received the funding,” church trustee and historian Rochelle Bush told CBC News in 2021. “We are extremely grateful because the church will now be preserved for future generations.”  MW

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in Tyjondah Kerr’s article: Inclusion, equity, and diversity is for all of us.

Ibrahim Daair is Staff Writer and Copy Editor at Municipal World.

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