Should I Stay? Historical Records After the Underground Railroad 

The annual Black History Month blog series will look at the narratives and historical records of the Black community after the end of the Underground Railroad and through the 20th century.

Part 1 of a 6-part series.

The narratives of the Underground Railroad are dramatic, exciting, memorable, and even legendary tales. While important, those narratives often overshadow other, equally important histories.

Historical sources were also so focused on the experiences of Freedom Seekers to help grow the anti-slavery movement that most of those same Freedom Seekers disappear from the historical record after they leave St. Catharines when slavery was abolished. This leaves commons questions for historians to consider, including:

  • Where did the Freedom Seekers go after the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and the end of the Civil War in the 1860s?
  • What was life like for the Black community in St. Catharines after the end of the Underground Railroad?

The lack of historical sources that detail those answers means we must piece together life experiences from the available records. This often leads to new questions, and much fewer answers.

However, throughout our blog series this year, we hope to shed some light on the lives of the Black community in St. Catharines from the mid-1860s (post-Underground Railroad) to the early 20th century.

To Recap:

If you’re new to our local history, here’s a few historical nuggets relative to the narratives that will help catch you up:

  • Freedom Seekers, those formerly enslaved persons who came northward to Canada on the Underground Railroad, settled in St. Catharines, and throughout Ontario (Canada West at the time). The peak of Underground Railroad activity and settlement was between 1850 and 1865, though many were coming to Canada long before 1850.
  • Richard Pierpoint, believed to be the first free Black settler in St. Catharines, arrived here in 1793 after being granted freedom and land for service in the Revolutionary War. Others were freed of the enslavement in 1834 by the Emancipation Act which ended slavery in Canada and across the British Empire.
  • When the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified and slavery abolished, the reason for Freedom Seekers journey and residence in Canada had disappeared. Many returned home to their families and communities to start their lives.
  • But, some stayed, and with those who had settled long ago, made up a strong and engaged Black community.

Why Go?

We know from the historical source material available that most Freedom Seeker refugees wanted to return home when slavery was finally abolished.

“We would rather stay in our native land, if we could be as free there as we are here.”

Harriet Tubman, as told to Benjamin Drew and recorded in his book The Refugee, published in 1856.

They wanted freedom but they also wanted home. Until 1863-1865, that wasn’t possible. That’s why the Freedom Seekers came to Canadian cities like St. Catharines in the first place. But they weren’t always excited or happy about coming here. Interviews with the Freedom Seekers suggest that their travel to and residence in Canada was the price to pay for freedom and that they’d happily return home to their families when slavery was abolished.

“I find more prejudice here than I did in New York State. When I was at home, I could go anywhere; but here, my goodness! You get an insult on every side. The coloured people have their rights before the law; that is the only thing that has kept me here.”

Mrs. Brown, as interviewed by Samuel Gridley Howe as part of the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission report, 1863

The opportunity of being reunited with family at home was paramount to refugees returning to post-Civil War United States. While employment and educational opportunities were available, and the Black and white-abolitionist community continued to support Freedom Seekers, most returned home to the United States to rejoin and resettle with their families in freedom.

Of course, returning home meant that their story in St. Catharines ended abruptly and, in most cases, they disappear from local historical records.

To learn more about the Howe Report, check out our Black History Month blog series from 2019.

The Records

Our series this year will look at the lives of those of the Black community left behind – those few Freedom Seekers who stayed to build a new life and those, along with their descendants, who had been the backbone of the community’s efforts to help during the Underground Railroad.

The source material from the 1860s through the remainder of the 19th century is unhelpful in tracing these stories and life experiences. Census data is sometimes unreliable and inconsistently reports race across the decades. In other ways, primarily white institutions, like newspapers, didn’t always focus on the stories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, and these gaps in the record reveal a continuous challenge to our understanding and ability to accurately share those stories.

A few sources do make some information available to us, especially as we look at narratives from the early 20th century. Survival of records is more likely, photography was more widely available and used in news media, and the priority of news organizations shifted from representations of Black people as folks in the background, to people in the centre of the story. Though, be wary. Increased coverage of Black life and community in the city doesn’t always equate to fair, just, or non-racist coverage.

Representation in media is always challenging to use as historical source material. Newspaper coverage and editorials, especially, are self-serving to media ownership, paper sales, and the audience. This can result in negative depictions and representations of folks Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, no matter the era of study.

City directories and High School yearbooks, too, are interesting snap shots of the past. But the information is limited and concentrated that this leaves us with more questions than answers. For example, yearbooks show a curated high school experience that celebrates achievement rather than the daily experience involved in walking the halls as a Black student. City directories, too, offer little information and must be used in conjunction with other sources, often unavailable.

Life in post-Underground Railroad St. Catharines may not be as exciting and enthralling as the fascinating stories of Freedom Seekers, but whose daily life is that exciting anyway? By examining source material for the everyday, we can further share the experiences of Black folks in the city, and most importantly learn about their realities, challenges, successes, and lives.

Coming up on Sunday, February 12: We’ll investigate the census records to learn more about who stayed after 1865.

Follow along this Black History Month. Subscribe and share our posts to help share more of these important narratives.

The 2023 Black History Month Blog Series is written by Sara Nixon, Adrian Petry, and Kathleen Powell.

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