"Being a poor man myself, I learned from my friends, that Mr. Merritt was the poor man's friend. To the colored population, he has been very kind and lenient."
-- Henry Gray, March 6, 1841
The black and white etching of a straight faced, steely-eyed white fropped gent says it all. Determined, focused and gutsy, William Hamilton Merritt did not suffer fools gladly.
Born in 1793, the same year Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe passed the first Emancipation Act, this son of a sheriff grew up in an era that witnessed the early migration of blacks to Upper Canada.
Aside from his notable accomplishments as a parliamentarian, the chief engineer of the Welland Canal, architect of the first Niagara Suspension Bridge and a soldier in the War of 1812, Mr. Merritt was also a staunch abolitionist who some described as a person who "held a paternal interest in the slaves."
The black settlers needed chapels but had no land and little money. When a small group of them approached Merritt and Oliver Phelps inquiring about a land purchase for a church, the two men carried out their business transaction and sold a plot of land at the corner of Geneva Street and North Street for five pounds ($1). The construction of the Salem Chapel otherwise known as the Black Methodist Church was born. Today, the chapel is a National Historic Site and part of the Niagara Freedom Trail.
The Black Baptists were also in need. So when they heard of Merritt's sympathies to the refugee slaves, they too inquired about some land for the construction of a church but with little money, the small Black group had hoped Merritt might contribute to their cause. He did better than that. "He told us to meet him at 9 o'clock the next morning, and he would give us a lot. This filled us with surprise and gratitude," stated Henry Gray in a letter, which appeared in the St. Catharines Journal on March 11, 1841 about the future site of the Zion Baptist Church.
In 1841, it was election time and judging by Gray's letter, the tone strongly appealed to the black voter. Perhaps Merritt too relied on the black support and hoped they would vote for him.
Merritt's generosity involving the two plots of land helped sow the seeds for the future church sites, which later became pillars in the community.
After the Americans passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 putting a bounty on all blacks, a mass exodus of refugee slaves occurred. It is estimated 700 blacks were to call St. Catharines their home between 1851-1858. Always conscious of human rights and dignities, causes that were etched in him as a small child, Merritt spurned discrimination and believed strongly in social tolerance.
On a rainy Friday night in 1852, Merritt gathered with a group of like-minded citizens and met at the local town hall to opine about the growing black population that was arriving via the Underground Railroad.
"Details were given by Mr. Loguen, once a slave, of the cruelties he had witnessed--the necessary result of slavery. We think we never heard a more truthful, impressive or disgusting detail," reported the St. Catharines Journal, April 15, 1852 and continued, "The Hon. Mr. Merritt spoke in terms of condemnation of the institution, and favorably of the conduct of the refugee slaves in this part of Canada, and recommended that something practical be done in their favor."
It was on that spring evening that the Fugitive Slave Friends Society was established in St. Catharines. The St. Catharines Journal reported, "(it) will be put in correspondence with those kind and benevolent people in the States who kindly transmit to this country, books, money and clothing for the poor refugees, and assist by all possible means, in ameliorating the oppressed and harrassed fugitive."
When Merritt died at the age of 69, the rain clouds thickened making it an arduous journey for those who trekked through the harsh Niagara frontier to pay their respects. His family plot resides in the Victoria Lawn Cemetery near his beloved Welland Canal and near the plot of Anthony Burns, the black Baptist preacher of the Zion Baptist Church who is one of many who felt his kindness.