The Underground Railroad is an important part of St. Catharines’ history – but the journey of freedom seekers out of slavery into Canada is far from the end of the story. Escaped slaves, led to St. Catharines by Harriet Tubman or one of many other Underground Railroad conductors, quickly put down roots in our City and contributed to building our community. The three stories below offer a snapshot of life after the Underground Railroad for St. Catharines’ Black community.
Richard A. Ball was born in St. Catharines, a descendant of slaves who escaped on the Underground Railroad. Ball began his career as a barber in St. Catharines. Active within the B.M.E. Church, he was ordained a Minister in 1892.
Following the American Civil War, some of St. Catharines Black population returned to their homes in the U.S., but others remained in Niagara, including the Ball Family.
Rev. Ball, his wife, children and grandchildren all sang and played musical instruments. Their gospel music group, the “Ball Family Jubilee Singers” toured Canada and the United States.
Alex Nicholson is pictured with his son, Mallagy (Mal). Alex is the son of escaped slave Adam Nicholson, who came to St. Catharines via the Underground Railroad.
A local entrepreneur, Alex started a hauling business, transporting gravel and stone using a horse and wagon. Eventually, the business expanded and Nicholson replaced the horses with a truck.
His son Mal went on to have a trucking company.
Many Blacks, including the coachman John Dorsay, found employment in St. Catharines’ world renowned spas, such as the Welland House Hotel, pictured here.
While the local spa hotel industry had many Black employees, they did not welcome Black patrons. In 1854, the hotel stagecoaches of two local hotels refused to accept black passengers. Waiters at the hotels boycotted work and eventually the hotels reversed their decision.
Meredith Leonard is the Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.