ST. CATHARINES, Ont. – The hairs on my arm stand straight up as Lezlie Harper-Wells tells the story of Richard Pierpont. It’s the tale of a young boy who at age 16 was taken from his homeland of present-day Senegal in the mid-1700s, and forced into slavery. He later garnered his freedom by serving in the British Army against the colonists in the American Revolution. As a free man, he became successful by any standards, with 200 acres of property and the respect of the community.
Despite this, what Pierpont desired most as he grew older was to return to his native land. However, his petition in 1821 to Canadian authorities was denied and Harper-Wells muses that the willow trees (a symbol of grief), which now grow on Pierpont’s plot of land, mourn the heart of a man who simply wanted to go home.
“I used to cry when I told this story,” says Harper-Wells.
It’s just one of the powerful pieces of history we hear on Niagara Bound’s tour of St. Catharines, Ont., and its surrounding area. The Pierpont stop is one of several that takes our small group to cemeteries, crossing points and churches to explore the region’s role in black history.
In the 1800s, St. Catharines was an internationally recognized safe haven attracting key abolitionists. It was also one of the end points of the Underground Railroad – not a physical rail line, but an informal resistance network of people and safe houses that hid and guided slaves from the southern United States to their freedom in British North America. The covert operation was perilous to all involved, particularly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which gave slave-owners the right to pursue escapees in other states and required all U.S. citizens to assist in their capture.
So clandestine was the operation that few details were ever recorded. However, historians believe that over time about 40,000 freedom seekers made their way to Canada. Harper-Wells is a direct descendant of one of them, who arrived in the Niagara region in 1850. Her great-great-grandfather escaped slavery in Kentucky and traveled hundreds of miles with his brother and 9-year-old sister at night through treacherous conditions before crossing the Niagara River and settling in Fort Erie.
Harper-Wells says that the tours she gives are “a passion and a vehicle to get the stories out,” and that she especially loves to see younger people engage in this history.
“It’s a message that says, look what we’ve done, not look what was done to us,” says Harper-Wells.
Of all the stops on the daylong tour, nowhere is this pride more evident than at the Salem Chapel, a British Methodist Episcopal church that was the first black church in St. Catharines and quite likely the oldest in the province.
“For many African-Americans, this is hallowed ground,” says Rochelle Bush, the church’s historical director.
Built in 1855, it was a focal point of the 19th century abolitionist and civil rights movement in Canada. Bush names a few of the famous people who were part of the church, including Gov. John Graves Simcoe, who introduced anti-slavery legislation in 1793, and Hamilton Merritt, an abolitionist businessman. But by far the most known and revered person associated with the Salem Chapel is Harriet Tubman.
“Moses got the charm”
Bush shares the story of this celebrated hero, who earned the nickname Moses as she led hundreds from bondage to safety, risking her life time and time again. “It’s mind-boggling,” says Bush, who tells us how despite a huge bounty on her head, Tubman was never caught and never lost a “passenger.” Tubman worshipped here for eight years before the start of the Civil War and was an active member of the church.
Today, the Salem Chapel continues to be a place of prayer, but it is also a National Historic Site where visitors can arrange tours and gain insight into the abolitionist activities that took place within its walls. If you visit, you’ll find the church is a simple one, with a Union Jack flag prominently displayed beside the altar. Off to one side is a Harriet Tubman doll holding a rifle, along with plaques of other abolitionists.
In the basement, the pressed-wood paneled walls are filled with memorabilia – yellowed newspaper clippings, photographs, paintings and maps of the freedom seekers’ journeys, and quotes from songs and poems, including this one from Tubman in 1851:
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.
Outside, a bust of Tubman looks out over the small back garden, paying tribute to a hero whose legacy continues to grow.
If you go
Niagara Bound’s Underground Railroad Era Tours (905-685-5375; www.niagaraboundtours.com) run on both sides of the border from February to October in the Niagara and Buffalo regions. Full day tours are $40 per person, and itineraries can be customized for groups.
Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church, 92 Geneva St., St. Catharines, Ont. (905-682-0993; www.salemchapelbmechurch.ca). Historic site tours are by appointment only and offered year-round for $3 per person.
Special activities this year mark the 100th year memorial anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s death on March 10, 1913. The chapel will host free open houses with storytelling and lectures on April 20, May 25, June 22, Sept. 21, Oct. 19, Nov. 23 and Dec. 14.
The Annual Harriet Tubman Day Dinner and Celebration will be March 9. Activities – music, poetry, speakers - begin at 3 p.m. and are free; the dinner is $20; $12 for those 10 and under.
On Sunday, March 10, the church will mark Harriet Tubman Day with a 100th Memorial Tribute at 3 p.m.
For more events, visit www.harriettubmancanada.com.