“The city of St. Catharines was the last station in Harriet Tubman’s journey north, and served as a haven for the hundreds of blacks who remained in this area to become an important part of the social fabric of our community.”In 1990, those words served as part of a proclamation by the City of St. Catharines making this the first city in Canada to officially recognize March 10 as Harriet Tubman Day.
On that day, a humble-looking church on the corner of Geneva and North Streets in downtown St. Catharines, held a dinner as well as a host of other events that paid tribute to a woman who was known as “Moses to her people.”
Built by black refugees between 1853 and 1856, in an area that at the time was referred to as “coloured town,” the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BME) — Salem Chapel, once served as a place of worship and refuge for black refugees who were brought along the underground railroad to freedom. To this day it continues to have a key role in the preservation of the memory of that time period. The original walnut timbers, which were hand-hewn and dragged by horse from Niagara-on-the-Lake, can still be seen in the basement of the chapel.
“As a place to congregate in if we needed to, that [the BME] is all we had back then and it is all we have now,” said Rochelle Bush, director of the Harriet Tubman Centre and historical director of the BME church.
The chapel was dedicated as a municipal historical site in 1980. Then, in July of 2000, word came from the federal government that the BME would become St. Catharines’ first national historical site.
“We can’t build, construct or make changes without government input now. It’s a good thing,” said Bush, who said even now she is still amazed and proud of the honour that has been bestowed upon the church. “It is because of nothing we have done, it is all because of our ancestors.
“They fought long and hard,” commented Bush, who herself has deep roots with the chapel.
Within the wall of the southern-style architecture is an amazing collection of artifacts that could rival a museum: a copy of Tubman’s last will and testament, a Union Jack flag believed to be from 1880, which still adorns the altar of the church, and even a first-edition copy of Jefferson Davis’ biography. This would seem uncommon given that Jefferson Davis was the president of the confederate states of America and a strong supporter of slavery, but as Bush noted “It’s a part of our history.”
Although all of the artifacts that have been kept and put on display are incredible, perhaps the most inspiring is the original pulpit from which John Brown and Tubman would have touched and spoken to the congregation. Artifacts are still being discovered, buried behind false walls and underneath floorboards.
In 1996 Bush, along with her uncle, looked underneath the stairs of the church when she reached into a hole and discovered a whole new assortment of items. Recalling that moment, still gets Bush excited and she said it is hard for her to put her emotions into words.
This summer, an archeological society will be brought into the church, at which point they will begin excavating the lower level of the church in hopes of finding even more items, she explained.
As we toured the upper level of the chapel, Bush also noted that with the exception of three or four, all of the floorboards we were standing on were originals. Given that this was the area where the children would have been sent to play, it is her belief that if the boards were to be lifted up, tucked between and underneath them would be all kinds of items that the children would have hidden.
Looking around the walls of the upper level, even the intricate pattern of stencil that was originally used has been restored. Bush explained that Brock students volunteered their time in 1990 and had managed to replicate not only the stencil pattern but even the original color used.
While still operating with regular Sunday services and Wednesday night Bible study, the chapel also serves as a place of education. According to Bush, many people travel to St. Catharines, and specifically to the chapel, because of its historical significance.
“We get a lot of American students who come up. We also get a lot of congregations who come through and stay for hours,” commented Bush.
The church also brings in student groups who are taught about the history of the chapel, the area and especially about Tubman.
“When I went to school, discussion of black history was zero. In the past decade it has started to develop because of heritage tourism,” recalled Bush.
Throughout the Niagara region significant areas have been commemorated with plaques and the Niagara Economic and Tourism Corporation has put together a pamphlet which identifies all of the Niagara freedom trail sites.
Although the buildings no longer stand, the residence where Harriet Tubman stayed during her years in St. Catharines was located directly across North street from the BME chapel and the original Zion Baptist Church was located about a block down the road (it has since been re-established at 25 Raymond St.)
Other significant locations include the Welland House Hotel (on the corner of Ontario and Church Streets) and Lakeside Park in Port Dalhousie.
The hotel was built by African-Canadians and operated as a spa which hosted many very prominent political figures, while Lakeside Park was host to Emancipation Day celebrations.
Originally, the celebrations which have been recorded as far back as 1835, consisted of a parade which started at Welland and St. Paul and concluded at town hall. Since 1920, the events have been held at Lakeside Park and despite fizzling out in the early 1970s, there have been attempts to revitalize it as descendents of freedom seekers continue to come from all over to celebrate here.
A celebration in honour of Black History Month is planned for Feb. 16 at the Salem Chapel between 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. At that time, stories will be shared on how freedom seekers would hide in potato patches, haystacks and false wagon bottoms, as they traveled by foot, horse or wagon along the underground railroad. Tubman herself traveled 1000 miles from Maryland to St. Catharines, although she would also make up to 11 trips back and forth across the border as she led over 300 people to freedom — all the while with a $40,000 bounty on her.
Another celebration is planned Feb. 23, at the BME sister chapel, the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel in Niagara Falls. This is another significant building that has been designated as historical sites by all three levels of government. The church is located at 5674 Peer St. and the events will take place between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.