February is Black History Month, during which people from across the country recognize and celebrate the many achievements of Black Canadians and their contributions to making Canada the culturally diverse, compassionate, and prosperous nation it is today.
Harriet Tubman is among the great heroes of the 19 century. A legendary conductor of the Underground Railroad, Harriet led hundreds of enslaved Blacks to freedom. The Underground Railroad and Niagara’s Freedom Trail were a network of people who hid and guided enslaved black people who were leaving the United States to seek freedom. St. Catharines was a final stop on the Underground Railroad. Tubman lived in here during the 1850s and many of the people she led to freedom stayed in St. Catharines and helped to shape our community.
Enjoy this self-guided tour to some of the significant Black History sites in St. Catharines:
Salem Chapel BME Church
📍 92 Geneva St.
Built in 1855 in the heart of ‘Coloured Town’ the BME Church was a significant part of abolition in Canada and remains an important part of our community today. Harriet Tubman lived near the Salem Chapel and is the most famous member of its congregation. Salem Chapel is a national historic site and is regarded by many to be the oldest Black church in Ontario.
The Old Court House
📍 101 King St.
St. Catharines emerged as an important centre for abolitionist activity during the 1850s and the former Lincoln County Court House became a venue for lectures and demonstrations by renowned speakers and visitors involved the anti-slavery movement, including Rev. Dr. Michael Willis and Jermain Loguen. The first meeting of the Refugee Slaves’ Friends Society was held at the Old Court House.
The Welland House Hotel
📍 30 Ontario St.
St. Catharines’ heyday for mineral spa tourism provided opportunities for Freedom Seekers joining the community. Black men and women found their first jobs as free persons at the Welland House Hotel, including as construction labourers, servers, cooks and domestics. The Welland House was destroyed by fire during the summer of 2021.
Richard Pierpoint Park
📍 321 Oakdale Ave.
Captured in Africa and forced into slavery at age 16, Richard Pierpoint gained freedom by enlisting as a British soldier during the America Revolution. When discharged, Pierpoint was given farmland between Geneva Street and Oakdale Avenue, some of which became Centennial Gardens (renamed Richard Pierpoint Park in 2021). During the War of 1812, Pierpoint, who was about 68, organized the Coloured Corps, an all-Black militia which fought major battles in Niagara.
William Hamilton Merritt Monument
📍 Corner of St. Paul Street West and McGuire Street.
The prominent businessman and founder of the Welland Canals was also an abolitionist who helped Black refugees settle in St. Catharines. Merritt also sold the land to the freedom seekers to build the British Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Salem Chapel, and the Zion Baptist Church.
📍 1 Lakeport Rd.
Spanning back to the 1920s, thousands of Black Canadians and Americans would gather at Lakeside Park to celebrate Emancipation Day. Before moving to ‘Ontario’s Playground,” Black and white people would parade in Downtown St. Catharines to celebrate abolition as far back as 1835.
Victoria Lawn Cemetery
📍 431 Queenston St.
Reverend Anthony Burns – plaque located at the Queenston Street entrance to Victoria Lawn Cemetery, where his grave is located. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1834, Rev. Anthony Burns escaped to Boston in his 20s only to arrested and returned to his owner. Eventually freed by a Baptist church in Boston, Burns attended college, became a minister and settled in St. Catharines in 1860 where he was pastor of Zion Baptist Church until his death.
St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre
📍 1932 Welland Canals Pkwy.
Explore the award-winning Follow the North Star exhibit and discover the rich local Black history that is incorporated throughout the gallery.
Sources: Rochelle Bush, trustee and historian at the BME Church Salem Chapel; St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre