With Family Day around the corner, we chose to use the second installment of our Black History Month blog series to highlight the experiences of Black families in St. Catharines.
Rather than generalizing a vibrant history of diverse experiences, we want to instead focus on the particular story of the Nicholson-Smith family and their legacy in St. Catharines. Why? Because their story is one of struggle, of perseverance, of dedication. It is a story that is quintessential of St. Catharines. Yet, this story is one we don’t hear very often. Or maybe, we just don’t listen closely enough.
So, let’s get to know our neighbours a little better. Let’s trace the legacy of the Nicholson-Smith family in St. Catharines.
Finding Freedom: Adam Nicholson
The legacy begins with Adam Nicholson. He was born into slavery sometime in the early 1800s. No records exist about Adam’s early life. We do not know when he was born, or who is family was. What we do know is that he was a slave who eventually made an escape from bondage in the United States. He escaped in 1854, using the Underground Railroad network from Virginia, eventually finding freedom and a new life in St. Catharines.
Nicholson was drawn to a Black community developing near the small hamlet of McNab on Eight Mile Creek (near where the Grantham neighbourhood is today). Familiar with farming from his past life as a slave, Adam found work on local farms, but this time earning a wage. By 1868, after much hard work, Adam saved enough money to purchase two acres of land. He built a two-storey house on what is now Church Road in Grantham, part of St. Catharines today. There, he raised six children with his wife Mary Ann.
Building Community: Alexander and Mabel Nicholson
The Nicholsons were part of a community who knew the importance of perseverance and hard-work. Surrounded by this, Adam and Mary Ann’s children grew up to be industrious and community-oriented.
Their youngest son, Alexander, grew up to be a very successful entrepreneur, building what would become Alex Nicholson and Son Trucking. It was one of the first businesses in Grantham to be established by a Black family.
Alexander, and his wife Mabel were also heavily involved in the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church and devoted much of their efforts to supporting the black community in St. Catharines. Mabel Nicholson was often referred to as the Matriarch of the community. When McKinnon Industries (now General Motors) first began to hire Black workers, Mabel opened her home to those workers who could not afford accommodations, providing food and beds until they got on their feet.
An Advocate & Activist: Helen Mabel Smith
Helen Mabel Smith followed in the footsteps of her parents, Alex and Mabel Nicholson, becoming a strong, tireless advocate for the Black community in St. Catharines. Helen devoted her life to spreading awareness of the rich Black culture and history in Niagara, frequently giving addresses in schools and heritage forums, acting as a spokesperson in community venues, as well as writing poetry. Helen was also instrumental in saving the BME Church on Geneva Street in St. Catharines, both its physical structure as well as the community within. Helen led the fight to have the church receive official heritage designation; it was dedicated as a National Historic Site in 1993.
For her lifetime of efforts and activism, Helen was awarded the first Harriet Tubman Award, the YMCA Peace Medal, and the 125th Anniversary Confederation of Canada Medal, among many other significant honours. She died on June 17, 1994.
This Family Day, we honour the legacy of escaped slaves to St. Catharines and the families and communities they’ve built here. Escaped slaves like Adam Nicholson and the impact generations of his family have had on St. Catharines. Adam Nicholson, his children, his grandchildren, and beyond, have all contributed to the strength of our community, especially the Black community in St. Catharines. Each were also neighbours, coworkers, and community members. All were everyday people who worked hard, and persevered towards a better future.
We don’t always know the experiences of our neighbours and fellow community members. We don’t always get a chance to listen to their story, to learn of the experiences and struggles of their family. Maybe we need to consciously make space to try.
You can learn more about the Nicholson-Smith family’s legacy in our One-Five-Oh! Exhibit on display at the St. Catharines Museum.
What’s Your Family Legacy?
We invite you to take up a new tradition for Family Day: make this holiday a day of reflection. Together with your family, take time to reflect on the experiences of your family. What is your family legacy? What do you want your family’s legacy to be? What has your family gone through to get to where you are now? You don’t have to reach super far back into the past to consider these questions either, you can look back to a few years ago, or even a few days! How are these experiences the same or different from other families in your community? How is your family working together to bring more compassion and action into your community? And finally, what will the legacy of your family be in years to come?
Taking advantage of opportunities to learn more about each other helps us to act in compassionate ways. To better understand our community and where our neighbours have come from. This Family Day, we urge you to embrace compassion and take action to better your community. This can be as simple as just getting to know your neighbour.
Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer 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.