Retracing Niagara's Freedom Trail

By Ilona Kauremszky

NIAGARA FALLS -- As a young girl growing up in Hamilton, Wilma Morrison recalls how she and others of her small church youth group used to enjoy the church socials every Sunday night.

That is until one evening back in the 50s.

"We called the roller rink ahead," recalls the 74-year-old retired nurse. "Except when we showed up, the manager looked rather surprised on discovering our church group was black. He telephoned the owner inquiring about our reservations," and added, "When he returned he told us they were closed."

Wilma and her youth group staged a sit-in before the days of sit-ins and calmly told other patrons the rink was closed.

These days the feisty senior is busy getting the word out about the plight of black slaves seeking freedom in Canada.

Although Morrison has been unable to retrace her own roots, the active volunteer of the Norval Johnson Heritage Library in Niagara Falls has managed to uncover her husband's history, who was a direct descendant of refugee slaves from South Carolina.

Like Morrison's ancestors, it's estimated that during the period leading up to the American Civil War, 40,000 enslaved blacks left their families behind in the south. Many took nothing but the clothes on their back. Many were caught by packs of gun totin' bounty hunters while others managed to hide and seek their way to freedom.

Known as the Underground Railroad, the secretive network of people comprised of abolitionists from all colors and stripes of society. Among the sympathizers, there were whites, free blacks and Native Indians. These people risked their own lives to help secure the freedom of the black slaves. Those involved spoke in secret code and kept few documents. It was too risky.

"We have so much history in Canada, but not a lot has been done about the Underground Railroad and Canada's very important role in it," Wilma starts on a sunny afternoon with an iridescent rainbow shimmering above the mighty Niagara Falls. It couldn't be a more perfect day.

But it wasn't always so as I learned about Canada's (then Upper Canada) own queer relationship with slavery. Some United Empire Loyalists managed to import their slaves when they fled the United States to the Niagara frontier.

"In lots of instances people didn't realize we had slaves in Canada. This is one of the myths that we have to set people straight on because we did have slavery," says Wilma.

Then there was the spark. On a fine early spring day in 1793, a small black girl named Chloe Cooley was uprooted from her family and resold into American slavery. When then Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe heard of the calamity, it sent him over the edge. Angry and frustrated, he called his statesmen together at the first Parliament of Upper Canada and passed a controversial bill, the first of its kind in the British colonies, known as the Emancipation Act of 1793 that prohibited the importation of slaves.

However, there were some caveats that ultimately satisfied some of Simcoe's inner circle of nine statesmen who possessed slaves. Wilma adds, "So the Act was watered down and no new slaves were allowed to get in that's when the Underground Railroad came."

Today, a limestone mural depicting the historic occasion can be viewed on the grounds where it is believed the first Parliament once stood. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, the exterior of Parliament Oak School has two stone reliefs commemorating the signing of the act. There is a regal view of Simcoe, plume in hand with an entourage of statesmen debating the soon-to-be-signed document.

In the foreground beneath the wild branches of an oak tree, stands a modest bronzed monument. It reads: "When I found I had crossed, there was such a glory over everything. I felt as if I were in heaven. I am free and they shall be free. I shall bring them here." --- reads a plaque quoting Harriet Tubman.

Tubman, considered the most important conductor on the Black Underground Railroad arrived to these parts in 1851 and made St. Catharines her home for nearly 10 years. She made 19 ventures across the border bringing back an estimated 300 fugitive slaves.

These small monuments are part of the Niagara Freedom Trail, a collection of some 15 landmarks erected as reminders of Canada's past. Throughout the Niagara Freedom Trail, the sign of a runaway slave serves as a marker representing the historic sites. You can take a self- drive tour or take a small group tour called, the "Niagara Freedom Trail Tour" which Wilma and others organize.

The day we visited, we snaked along the lip of the Niagara Parkway until we reached Fort Erie. It's believed that at the height of the Underground Railroad during the 1850s, this stretch of lakefront had the largest migration of fugitive slaves who made their way to the land called, "The Promised Land" then Upper Canada.

"Across the river was prosperous Buffalo and on these opposite shores, you'd have forest and wilderness," says Wilma. These ancient maple trees must have witnessed much in their lives along the area known as "The Crossing."

In fact, it's known that one man, a runaway slave from Maryland, named Josiah Henson took his wife and four children across the turbulent waters. "I threw myself on the ground, rolled in the sand, seized handfuls of it and kissed them and danced around…I'm free," screamed Henson, also known as "Uncle Tom."

Author Harriett Beecher Stowe modeled her character after Henson's life. Penned in 1852, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sold over 300,000 copies in its first year. Many are convinced this controversial book was a catalyst to the events leading up to the U.S. Civil War. "So this is the little lady who made this big war," said President Abraham Lincoln upon meeting the best-selling author.

The resilient Henson soon founded the Dawn Settlement, a black community near Dresden, Ontario. He became a famous preacher, teacher and fellow conductor of the Underground Railroad. Today, visitors can pay homage to the man and his work at an interpretive center, which displays his home at the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site.

Wilma and I stand silently by the Crossing. The wild white-crested waves aimlessly crash onto the sharp rocky edges of Lake Erie's shoreline. With the flapping leaves playing against the windy updrafts, I stare into the deep indigo water and try to imagine what it must have been like for these people. We respectfully pause for a moment and continue along the Niagara Parkway towards Niagara Falls.

Except for the stark silhouette of the runaway slave, you can almost miss it. The red painted empire home with wide Doric columns is no exception. Called the Mahoney House, this property is home to a wonderful collection of dollhouses dating from the late 1700s. But beneath the main floor in the peculiarly high ceilinged basement, there are two rooms devoted to the story of Bertie Hall.

It turns out this property completed in 1830 by William Forsyth, a well-known family of smugglers, built a tunnel to service their trade across the water. It's also believed that Bertie Hall was a "safe house" for fugitive slaves prior to the Civil War.

Wilma opens the door. "In all this darkness they are brought here to this area," she points to a dark room furnished in period artifacts and continues, "We've had people literally run out of here. Some visitors have wept. People have come down the stairwell and then ran up the stairs and were unable to hear the completion of our talk. It was a powerful time. It's the kind of history we need to keep track of because it's the only way not to repeat it in the future."


photos: Stephen Smith

Things to Know:

Self-drive tours are popular. For brochures and more info visit the Ontario Underground Railroad's web site at

For a full-guided tour, small groups can contact the "Niagara Freedom Trail Tour" offered by the Norval Johnson Heritage Library, telephone: 905.358.9957. Price: $10 per person. Tour length: 5 hours.

The Norval Johnson Heritage Library (5674 Peer Street) houses over 1,000 books on the subject and is a full lending library. For appointments call 905.358.9957 or visit

Mildred M. Mahoney Dolls' House Gallery is open seven days a week until December 30. Hours: 10:00am-4:00 pm. Adults $5, Seniors $4, Students up to 16 years are $3 and children under 6 are free. Location: 657 Niagara Blvd, Fort Erie (2 miles north of the Peace Bridge)

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