Narratives of Fugitive Slaves – Part 2

Part 2 of a 4-Part Series

The person whom is most famously associated with the Underground Railroad is Harriet Tubman. She was colloquially known as the ‘Black Moses’ for her important role in helping fugitive slaves escape to free states and into Canada.

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A statue of Harriet Tubman at the newly built Harriet Tubman Public School in downtown St. Catharines.

My favourite thing about Harriet Tubman is that she used St. Catharines as her ‘base of operations’ during her work in the 1850s.

Now, I’m not sure ‘base of operations’ is the best way to describe her activity here. She didn’t have a control centre with many computer screens and knobs and buttons. St. Catharines turned out to be a great spot for Tubman to rest and reset between trips because of a confluence of fortunate factors. Thanks to the Welland Canal, St. Catharines was/is the largest urban centre in Niagara, and its proximity to the border meant not too long a trip into the United States.

More importantly, though, was the confluence of abolitionist business men, including William Hamilton Merritt and Oliver Phelps whom made possible the support of so many refugee slaves. Land and support was organized so that the arriving refugees might have a chance at a life while in Canada.

Enter stage left: Benjamin Drew. Drew captured a few words from Tubman herself, while in St. Catharines, and Tubman’s story makes an appearance in his book A Northside View of Slavery: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, which is the focus of this blog series.

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A bust and plaque dedicated to Harriet Tubman outside of the Salem Chapel BME Church on Geneva Street, St. Catharines.

Tubman doesn’t paint a pretty picture of St. Catharines like I enjoy doing. In fact, while I’m sure she was happy to have a place that was generally supportive like St. Catharines, it’s clear to her that a better solution to slavery is not escaping to free-States and Canada but is ending slavery all-together.

There’s no missing the tension in her words. She is concise and brief, as one might expect her to be considering what we know about her character:

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. Then I was not happy or contented: every time I saw a white man, I was afraid of being carried away. I had two sisters carried away in a chain-gang – one of them left two children. We were always uneasy. Now I’ve been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave. I have no opportunity to see my friends in my native land. We would rather stay in our native land, if we could be as free there as we are here. I think slavery is the next thing to hell. If a person would end another into bondage, he would, it appears to me, be bad enough to send him into hell, if he could.*

I do not need to point out the threads of Tubman’s message that are applicable to our world today.

I think it’s clear that recognizing Black History is important to all Canadians, and that the stories associated with Black History are important for us to consider as a part of our history, and not as something that is separate.

For more information about Harriet Tubman in St. Catharines, please consider attending a guided tour of our Follow the North Star exhibit: Tuesdays, February 14, 21, 28 at 2 p.m. and Thursdays, February 16 and 23 at 10 a.m.

Benjamin Drew (1812-1903) was an American abolitionist from Boston whose work was made possible thanks to the support of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society and John P. Jewett, a renowned anti-slavery sympathizer from Boston who had unexpectedly reaped a fortune from publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

Adrian Petry is a public historian and the Visitor Services Coodinator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

*Benjamin Drew. The Refugee : Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008. pp 52. 

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