Niagara Events To Commemorate Black History Month

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Pictured Above: Two unidentified black women with Niagara Falls in the background. Courtesy of Brock University Special Collections & Archives

February is Black History Month, a date recognized as an annual month of remembrance of important people and events in African-American history. Canadians and Americans celebrate it this month, and the United Kingdom also recognizes Black History Month in October.

Niagara Falls is more than just the city to go to in order to witness the majestic Falls, it also played an active role for African-Americans throughout history.

The Underground Railroad

Between 1840 and 1860, enslaved Africans followed the “Underground Railroad” to find freedom in Canada. It was not an actual railroad, but rather a secret network of routes and safe houses that helped people escape slavery and reach Canada, especially after the US passed the “Fugitive Slave Act” in 1850. This allowed slave hunters to pursue and capture enslaved people in places where they would legally be free. Approximately 30,000 slaves were able to escape along the Underground Railroad, and Niagara Falls was well-recognized as being a settling point for many people who escaped slavery in the United States.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman (Library of Congress). Taken between 1871-1876.

One of the most influential and empowering people to celebrate during Black History Month in Niagara Falls, is also the woman who played a huge hand in the Underground Railroad and became a heroine to many black people.

Harriet Tubman was born into a plantation in Maryland right into slavery. She was tormented with much cruelty as a field-hand. At age 13 she was struck in the head by a weight hurled by an overseer that would cause seizures for the rest of her life. After the death of her master in 1849, she was petrified of being sold to the Deep South and escaped without her husband to Philadelphia in the north. She began work as a cook in hotels and clubs to finance excursions to liberate other slaves into the Underground Railroad.

She returned in 1850 to rescue her sister Mary Ann and her two children. The Fugitive Slave Act came into effect in 1850, so now Harriet could no longer find complete refuge in the northern states, so that is when she began to bring them across the border into Niagara Falls, Canada. From there, they traveled to nearby St. Catharines, where they were aided by the Reverend Hiram Wilson, an abolitionist and the leader of the local refugee community.

In 1851 Tubman moved to St. Catharines, which would be the centre of her anti-slavery activities for the next seven years.

Due to Harriet Tubman’s courageous actions, St. Catharines quickly grew to 123 black families listed on the assessment rolls in 1855. Between 1852 and 1857, Tubman made 11 trips into the United States to rescue fugitives. What made her actions even more heroic was the $40,000 reward posted by a group of slave-owners for her capture — dead or alive. No one rivaled Tubman in the number of trips and the number of slaves liberated into the Underground Railroad.

Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel, 5674 Peer St., Niagara Falls 

The church was built in 1836 and in 1856, it was moved to Peer Street. The move was funded by a gentleman named Burr Plato, a fugitive from the US who prevailed over racist attitudes and became the first elected Black man in local government from 1886 to 1905. The Peer Street property was donated by Oliver Parnell, who had escaped slavery from Berlin, Maryland by swimming the Niagara River to freedom. Once in Canada, Pernell made his way to the village of Drummondville, part of present-day Niagara Falls, and settled there. During this period, there were many refugee slaves living in Drummondville along Peer, Stanley, Ross, Grey and Robinson Streets.

The building was renamed in 1983 after Nathaniel Dett, who was born in Niagara Falls in 1882. Dett was a world-renowned musician and composer. This building is the third oldest church in Niagara Falls.

One of Nathaniel Dett’s most played pieces is called “In the Bottoms”. He wrote this piano piece for the students he taught musically in 1913. It is being performed by Leon Bates. This is a portion of the second movement called “His Song”.

Niagara Black History Venues & Events

Due to fluctuating COVID-19 restrictions, we recommend visitors contact businesses directly to confirm availability.

Nathanial Dett Memorial Chapel of the British Methodist Episcopal Church
In 1836, the “British Methodist Episcopal Church” was built. The Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel is a National Historic Site that is part of the Freedom Trail’s Underground Railroad heritage places of interest.

Harriet Tubman Tribute
Harriet Tubman’s initial crossing into Canada in 1856 was commemorated by an explanatory plaque placed by the Niagara Parks Commission in June 2017. She crossed the Niagara Parkway, north of the falls, on a suspension bridge near the current Whirlpool Bridge Plaza. At the White Water Walk and Whirlpool Bridge’s entry, look for a sequence of plaques.

Niagara Falls History Museum
Throughout the year, the Niagara Falls History Museum hosts black history exhibits.

The Louis Roy Press and the 1793 Act Against Slavery (Queenston)
Canada’s oldest wooden printing press, which printed the 1793 Act Against Slavery. Mackenzie Printery & Museum of Newspapers (Queenston)

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center (Niagara Falls, New York)

The Heritage Center’s aim is to tell the true story of Niagara Falls’ Underground Railroad freedom seekers and abolitionists, inspiring visitors to realize modern-day injustices stemming from slavery and take steps toward a more fair society.

The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center is open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. on Thursday – Sunday



Speaker Series on Black History by the Niagara Parks Commission

With this multi-part online speaker series, learn about different viewpoints on Black history and culture in Canada.

This year’s Black History Speaker Series is a digital event that will be live-streamed. Tickets give access to these live, interactive sessions with top community historians and commentators specialising in Black history and culture through any computer, tablet, or mobile device.

Tickets are $15 for each event at 7:00 p.m., all sessions begin.

The Power of Cultural Competence by Saladin Allah
7:00 P.M., FEBRUARY 24 – $15

What does it mean to be culturally competent, and why does it matter? How does cultural competency affect our perception of the world and how we interact with others? What does it mean in practise, and how can we cross cultural divides in today’s world? Saladin Allah, a recipient of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights Achievement Award, can help you answer these issues in this enlightening session.

The speaker’s background: Saladin Allah is a writer, radio host, youth advocate, and the 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Achievement Award laureate. Saladin is a commissioner for the Niagara Falls Human Rights Commission and works as a visitor experience specialist at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center. As an educator and author, he has contributed to a number of foreign publications, including the six-part docuseries “Enslaved,” executive produced by Samuel L. Jackson. Saladin is the third-great grandson of Josiah Henson, the legendary Underground Railroad freedom seeker.

Self-Liberated and Famous: Fugitive Freedom Seekers Escape to Niagara by Rochelle Bush
MARCH 31, 7:00 P.M. – $15

Learn about the perilous journeys and triumphs of some of the most well-known African Americans who fled slavery and landed in Niagara. Learn about the importance of the region’s position and how Niagara became a haven for runaway freedom seekers in this fascinating session.

The speaker’s background: Rochelle Bush is a public historian who grew up in St. Catharines. She is the owner and chief guide of Tubman Tours Canada, as well as the resident historian of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NHS and the Salem Chapel, BME NHS Church.

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