BHM Part 1: Using Our Past to Inspire Us to Compassion and Action

Welcome to February and Black History Month

Cold February nights spent squirreled away under a blanket and the unrelenting pressure of maintaining New Years resolutions allows for a lot of reflection. But like Black History Month, reflection and contemplation isn’t restricted to the shortest month of the year. Then, again, it’s a lovely time to stay inside and contemplate the past.

Black History Month is an incredibly important time to recognize, reflect, and commemorate the history of the Black community in St. Catharines, and indeed, throughout Canada. But it definitely shouldn’t be contained to the shortest month of the year.

Moreover, Black History should never be recognized, reflected, or commemorated as a silo of history. Black History is as important and vital a part of the Canadian story as any other.

We find ourselves searching for ways to make our history relevant to our current human experience. To be honest, it can be difficult to connect to the past with the news the way it is these days. Things move so fast that it’s hard to figure it all out.

Yet parallels exist. Our community has a strong history of responding to injustice with compassion and action. With this first post in our series of four, we’ll reveal how our history can inspire compassion and action in our daily lives and in our community.

The Riot of 1852

Imagine if you will, a burgeoning town, mid-19th century, Canada. No pavement. Lots of horses. No electricity. The first reconstruction of the Welland Canal is less than 10 years old. The second generation of St. Catharines-born folks are just coming of age. Amidst all the chaos you’re imagining, now also include the presence of mindful community members who gather together to organize themselves in response to the impending influx of fugitive slaves from the United States.

A series of public meetings, attended by the Mayor, council members, and the Hon. William Hamilton Merritt, the father of the community, were held between 1851 and 1852. Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke to an anti-slavery meeting in St. Catharines in August of 1852.

Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke to an anti-slavery meeting in St. Catharines in August of 1852.

Earlier that April, after a number of these well attended anti-slavery meetings, the Refugee Slaves Friends’ Society was established, as a response to the outpouring of support and fundraising efforts to benefit those refugee slaves settling in St. Catharines. The outpouring of support was so great it actually needed to be organized. Considering the fervor to which both sides of the slavery argument dedicated their energies, the language used in establishing the society is inspiring:

“It may be asked, what has Canada to do with the slavery existing in the States of America? We answer – Canada is not, as we know of, separated by any national boundaries from human feelings or human sympathies. Slavery is an outrage on humanity, and therefore all nations and people are interested in its exposure and its termination. But in addition to this apology for anti-slavery meetings on British soil, we have this also – that bordering as we do on the country where man is chattel, and from which he is daily running to us for protection, and seeing as we do the accumulated misery borne by these poor hunted wretches, we should be less than human if we did not give expression to our feelings of condemnation of this monster crime.” – the St. Catharines Journal, April 8 1852.

At the same meeting, the St. Catharines Journal reported a “complaint about attempts by some young whites to disturb that meeting, and call for the Mayor to provide a [police] constable to prevent such disruptions in future.” – the St. Catharines Journal, April 15, 1852.

Even though a great deal of work was done to support escaped slaves, sources reveal instances and rumblings of underlying racism in the community. One such major event, spurred by ignorance and racial tension occurred in July, 1852:

(the below quote contains dated language and remains unedited from its original version)

“An event has just occurred at St. Catharines, which show that the prejudice of color exists here as well as elsewhere, to the detriment of the blacks, and only requires an adequate exciting cause to insure its development. At the annual militia training, in that place, there was a mixture of races on the ground; and whether the white people regarded themselves as degraded by this social amalgamation, a pretext for disturbance was not long wanting. A brick was thrown, and this became the signal for pretty general fighting. A rumor started that a fireman had been killed by Negroes, and immediately a descent was made on the neighboring Negro village, which is said to have been nearly demolished. No lives were lost, though several persons of both races received considerable injury. Several arrests have been made, and the whole circumstances will be investigated; but if the prejudice were strong against them, their numerical inferiority could not fail to operate unfavorably to their interest in the trials where that feeling should be called into active operation. If this occurrence proves the existence of a latent prejudice against color here, as well as on the south side of the lakes, it is not a bit stronger than religious, nor perhaps than political prejudice.

I don’t recollect that a collision of this kind has occurred before in Western Canada for ten years; although there have been plenty of fights between Orangemen and Roman Catholics and even between partisans of opposing political chieftains. The incident has however a certain significance that ought not be underrated. I believe the general feeling does not favor the influx of large numbers of Negroes to these shores, although it is by no means so strong as to threaten hostile legislation to prevent them from taking refuge here…” – Frederick Douglass Paper, July 16, 1852.

It’s evident that not everyone was onside with welcoming escaped slaves into the community and that racism in Canada was real. Despite that vocal, and sometimes violent opposition to their work, members of the Refugee Slaves Friends’ Society continued their work.

Stagecoach Boycott of 1854

Nearly one hundred years before Rosa Parks made her stand on public transit, the wait staff at nearly all of St. Catharines popular, tourist-destination hotels left their posts in protest of the established policy forcing Black passengers to ride on their stagecoaches outside the carriage, with no regards to their rank, health, age or the weather.

The dramatic reaction, decided at a meeting in August, 1854, came after the Rt. Rev. Paul Quinn, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States and Canada, “came to the St. Catharines Depot in a feeble state of health. This fine old gentleman…was compelled to climb up and take his seat outside to ride into town.” – Provincial Freeman, August 12, 1854. There were many other similar occurrences, of Black travellers either waiting for hours at Port Dalhousie for a coach into St. Catharines, or having to ride atop the coach, even if their rank, age or health might demand a seat inside.

And so, a meeting was convened at which two resolutions were passed by the Black waiters of the two leading hotels:

“Resolved: That, in this glorious land of Freedom, and particularly, under this equitable and powerful Government, man is man, without respect to the colour of his skin, and that we as men, will not submit to degrading terms of service, nor see our brethren treated with indignity by public conveyances, or excluded therefrom, without showing a manly spirit of resentment. Resolved: That, as waiters, at the public hotels, of St. Catharines, we will not continue in the service of our present employers, unless, in the management of their conveyances, they henceforth treat ourselves, and our people with that respect and civility, to which we are entitled, as men” – Provincial Freeman, August 12, 1954.

The waiters walked-off the job, in protest, and luckily for them, the hotels quickly reversed their policy.

Our History Isn’t Perfect

What inspiration can we draw from these major happenings from our past?

The first consideration is our realization and acceptance that our community’s history isn’t perfect. Too often, in celebration of our past, we heighten the wonderful work of those involved in helping settle refugee slaves coming to Canada on the Underground Railroad. That celebration is less valuable if we fail to recognize the conflict and opposition that existed. It is important to recognize that racism is a part of our past.

However, we should not celebrate any less the work of abolitionists in our community. Rather their story has greater impact when we acknowledge the greater context of their work. It wasn’t a given that refugee slaves would be welcome and supported here. Abolitionists had to labour among their own friends and family to win them to their side.

The second consideration is that history is not just a thing of the past and that we should look to the past more dynamically. Just because these events occurred over one hundred years ago, doesn’t make them less relevant. In fact, many parallels could be drawn between those events of the 1850s, and events since.

If anything, the inspiration that we should draw from our history is one that drives us to compassionate action in our community, with the realization that one day we will be the cast of characters in our past, talked about at length by historians, also looking for deeper meaning. Compassion and action are required of us today to fully realize historical parallels in our modern context.

Will you allow Black History Month, and indeed, any history, to compel you to compassion and action in our community?

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

Follow along with Museum Chat and Museum Chat Live! every Tuesday in February as we explore the history of the Black Community in St. Catharines and find a deeper meaning in familiar stories from the past. 



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