Filling in the Gaps: 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 6 of a 6-part series.

Over the course of the annual Black History Month blog series, we have examined a variety of primary sources including newspapers, census records, high school yearbooks, and city directories looking for clues that could provide a deeper understanding of the Black experience in St. Catharines in the decades following the Underground Railroad era.

The stories gleaned from these sources were sometimes very specific, giving insight into the experiences of ordinary people at a fleeting instance in their lives – people who were also a part of the Black community in our city. At other times, the knowledge gained from these sources was maddeningly vague leading to more questions. The combination of these help to show us more about our own civic identity.

The stories of Leslie Bell, Delva Dorsey, and Mal Nicholson, for example, could be considered small, or ‘micro,’ stories – participating in a playground field day in 1939, graduating from high school in 1951, running a contracting business in 1960. These are stories of people and their individual mark on the community at a certain moment in time – stories that might have otherwise been forgotten if it were not for the records that have been preserved.

At the same time, the information shown in the census records begs historians to ask so many questions about what caused changes in demographics and how can we find out?

And further still, the context and role of news media in the 19th and 20th centuries in crafting narrative, influence opinion, and reporting news impacts the Black experience and how historians come to interpret those stories. What consequences of negative representations of Black folks in the press were part of their daily experience?

People-focused stories that highlight the experiences of everyday individuals help to cultivate a deeper connection to the past. Rather than telling big, or ‘macro,’ stories of societal movements and political events or great leaders, stories focused on the ordinary life of everyday people helps provide a depth to the broader Black History narrative. Most of us can connect, on a personal level, to the experiences of Black community members playing on a beach as children, joining a club in high school, or calling for better pay at their work. These seemingly small stories shed light onto the opportunities People of Colour in our community may have had access to, the ambitions they set for themselves.

Much more work, especially beyond on this annual blog series, is to be done to find and share these stories. A six-part blog series could never definitively claim to represent the experiences of every member of the Black community in St. Catharines in the early decades of the 20th century.  Instead, the goal in looking through newspaper records, census records, yearbooks and city directories was to provide additional layers to the story of the Black community in St. Catharines in the decades after the Underground Railroad.

The stories told over this blog series highlight moments of success, aspiration, challenge, pride, joy, and determination in the lives of Black individuals. These are universal concepts we all feel and experience. These are stories of everyday people, People of Colour who lived, went to school, worked, made friends, and pursued a full life in St. Catharines. These were the lives Freedom Seekers aspired to for themselves and their families when they arrived in St. Catharines more than 170 years ago.

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