While February is primarily recognized as Valentine’s season, the month is also devoted to celebrations of black history. Black History Month is a time for people of all ethnic backgrounds to remember and celebrate African-American history. Though society continues to struggle with race relations in a variety of ways, every February, we can devote time to recalling the successes and losses of the past in order to build a better future.
Though many don’t realize it, Niagara Falls was an important city for African-Americans throughout history. This Black History Month, come to Niagara Falls to learn about the personal and societal struggles of black people who found themselves in this amazing and beautiful region of Canada.
The Underground Railroad
By 1800 the northern states — comprised of everything from Pennsylvania to Maine — were working to abolish slavery, but most of the rest of the country, continued the practice until the Civil War. Worse, the so-called free states tolerated the injustice to encourage the low price of necessary crops raised and harvested through slave labor. Plus, even slaves who earned freedom continued to be persecuted throughout the country, and some were even forced back into slavery by loopholes in the law.
It should come as no surprise, then, that both free and enslaved African-Americans sought independence from slavery in America. Canada, which was then still under British rule, abolished slavery back in 1834, but had been working on legislation since the late 1700s that would grant freedom to slaves. Thus, through a network of secret trails and safe houses called the Underground Railroad, thousands of slaves journeyed northward for the possibility of freedom. During the 20 years the Railroad was in operation, it is estimated that 30,000 souls made the trek, and many of these were channeled directly through Niagara Falls.
Though slavery itself was short-lived in Niagara Falls, the city’s vital role in providing freedom to American slaves has secured its place in black history. Niagara Falls and the surrounding region celebrate this heritage in a variety of sites dedicated to preserving history and educating visitors.
Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University. This gallery is well-known by locals for showing some of the most moving collections, and it continues to impress with its exhibit entitled “Freedom Crossing: The Underground Railroad in Greater Niagara.” This collection contains photos, documents, and other artifacts from the period that tell personal stories of runaway slaves, and visitors can also learn more through paintings and videos throughout the gallery.
St. Catharines Museum at Lock 3. A small town on the edge of Lake Ontario — just a short drive south of Niagara Falls — St. Catharines was one of the first Canadian stops for traveling slaves. However, well before the Underground Railroad, some of the town’s first settlers were African-Americans who fought in the American War for Independence. Proud of its black history, St. Catharines Museum is largely devoted to educating about the prominence of its black community in the past, present, and future.
Niagara Falls History Museum. Niagara Falls’ largest museum also pays tribute to the region’s important past with a standing exhibit devoted to early black history. Alongside extensive looks at the geologic development of the Falls and the prominence of hydro-electricity, visitors can engage with stories of slaves risking life and limb in pursuit of liberty.