"I'm on my way to Canada / That cold and distant land / The dire effects of slavery / I can no longer stand / Farewell old master / Don't come after me / I'm on my way to Canada / Where coloured men are free."
So began the journey for some of the estimated 35,000 men, women and children escaping the scourge of slavery in the United States. With a hymn.
"As they sung some laughed, and some cried, and some clapped hands, or shook hands rejoicingly with each other, as if they had fairly gained the other side of the river," wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Josiah Henson was one who gained the other side of the river -- the Niagara River -- landing in Fort Erie, Ont. (Henson has in some quarters been called the inspiration for Stowe's Uncle Tom, but Robin Winks, author of "The Blacks in Canada," makes clear that Stowe and Henson never met nor communicated until after "Uncle Tom" was published.)
As Henson wrote in "The Autobiography of the Reverend Josiah Henson," his arrival in Canada was joyous.
"I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand, seized handfuls of it and kissed them, and danced around, till in the eyes of several who were present, I passed for a madman
"Still I could not control myself. I hugged and kissed my wife and children, and until the first exuberant burst of feeling was over, went on as before."
Today, Freedom Park, on the Niagara Parkway in Fort Erie, commemorates a significant crossing area where, largely between 1840 and 1860, Henson and many others arrived in Canada and where Linda Jones of Divercities Tours begins a trip along Niagara's Freedom Trail.
Follow the North Star, runaway slaves were urged, referring to both Canada and Polaris, the star that always points north. And so Jones leads the tour north, to Bertie Hall, 657 Niagara Parkway, a stop on the Underground Railroad. All stops on the trail are marked by plaques bearing a "running man" symbol.
The Fort Erie landmark was built in 1830 by William Forsyth Sr., whose sons, Brock and Nelson, were abolitionists. While few records were kept on this movement, which was neither underground nor an actual railroad, it is known that the Forsyths smuggled both cargo and humans, reportedly through a tunnel leading from the river to the home's basement.
As runaway slaves rarely felt comfortable so close to the border, fearing bounty hunters who were known to cross into Canada under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act, Bertie Hall served as a safe house until they could move farther from the border. Though the interior of the home is closed to visitors at this time, Bertie Hall is noteworthy and merits a visit.
From there Jones leads the tour onward to Fort Erie's so-called Coloured Cemetery, where some who settled in the town's "Little Africa" were laid to rest. Up to 200 former slaves lived in the area, working on farms, as Josiah Henson did before moving to Dresden, Ont., and Miller's Creek shipyard, now the site of the Niagara Parks Commission Marina.
The tour then heads to Niagara Falls and the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church. The chapel, on Peer Street, is named in honor of Dett, a successful black composer and at one time the church's organist. The chapel was built in 1836; in 1890, it was rolled on logs to its current location, and in 2000 it was named a National Historic Site.
Here visitors are greeted by Wilma Morrison, a passionate advocate of area black history and the Niagara Freedom Trail. Morrison's cause has received prominent attention. On Jan. 27, she received the Order of Ontario from Lt. Gov. David C. Olney.
At the chapel, Morrison shows the film "A Proud Past, A Promising Future," the first African-Canadian historical film, produced by the Ontario Black History Society. Morrison then tells of what happened to people who crossed the border to freedom, about the church's founding and its role as a spiritual home for escaped slaves. Afterward, all are invited to visit an adjacent house for a look at historic pictures and the opportunity to purchase pertinent literature.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Jones takes the tour to a site called the "Negro Burial Ground," perhaps significant more for its terminology, as only two headstones remain and who lies there is mostly a mystery. The Niagara Historical Society Museum has items pertaining to local black history, and it published the book "Slavery and Freedom in Niagara."
Divercities' Niagara Freedom Trail tour then visits the William Steward Homestead at 507 Butler St. Typical of an early settler's Niagara-on-the-Lake home, it stands with many original details still intact.
The trail ends in St. Catharines, where the St. Catharines Museum at the Welland Canal Centre tells the black freedom seekers' story in an award-winning exhibit, "Follow the North Star." Here we learn of Harriet Tubman and Anthony Burns. Tubman, perhaps the Underground Railroad's most prolific conductor, lived nearby, and Burns, prosecuted in 1854 in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act, eventually settled in St. Catharines, becoming pastor at Zion Baptist Church. He is buried nearby, at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.
The St. Catharines Public Library is home to the Norval Johnson Heritage Library, named for a strong supporter of the Nathaniel Dett Chapel. The collection contains more than 1,500 books and newspaper files relating to black history, fiction, as well as the Underground Railroad, and is marked by the "running man."
St. Catharines is also home to the Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church. Built in 1855, the Salem church was an important center of abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity. The church is home to the Harriet Tubman Centre for Cultural Services, and in 2010 a sculpture by Frank Rekrut honoring the courageous freedom fighter was unveiled, with the following inscription: "I wouldn't trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer. I brought them all clear off to Canada." The monument, placed alongside the church, to no surprise, faces the North Star.
>If you go:
Divercities Tours, (289) 241-0424; www.divercities.org.
St. Catharines Museum at the Welland Canal Centre, 1932 Welland Canal Parkway, St. Catharines; (905) 984-8880, www.stcatharineslock3museum.ca; open weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; winter weekends, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Niagara Historical Society Museum, 43 Castlereagh St., Niagara-on-the-Lake; (905) 468-3912; www.niagarahistorical.museum. Winter hours, 1 to 5 p.m. daily; summer, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.St. Catharines Public Library, 54 Church St., St. Catharines; (905) 688-6103; www.stcatharines.library.on.ca.; open Tuesday through Sunday.