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In this small Canadian town, a descendant of Black freedom seekers celebrates Harriet Tubman on $20 bill

The all-Black church in St. Catharines, Ontario, once counted Harriet Tubman among its members. Photo courtesy of Rochelle Bush
The all-Black church in St. Catharines, Ontario, once counted Harriet Tubman among its members. Photo courtesy of Rochelle Bush (Handout)

Marylanders last month celebrated the renewal of plans to put Harriet Tubman’s face on the $20 bill. Landmarks on the Eastern Shore and even a national park pay tribute to the woman known as the “Moses of her people.”

But Tubman’s life in the Old Line State was marked by suffering. She was born into slavery, and experienced chronic pain and narcolepsy after being injured by an overseer. Against all odds, she managed a daring escape in 1849, returning only to help others, including members of her family, escape through the Underground Railroad.

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As a conductor for the secret network, Tubman based her operations in St. Catharines, a Canadian town in the province of Ontario just 15 miles from the U.S. border. Located near Niagara Falls, the place attracted 19th century tourists from the southern United States to its mineral springs and fine hotels. It also attracted abolitionists and Black freedom seekers, including Tubman, who lived here off and on from 1851 to 1861.

“She may have been a part-time resident, but she was very important to this community,” says historian Rochelle Bush, a St. Catharines resident whose ancestors were 19th century Black American freedom seekers.

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Bush’s great-great-grandfather was for a time the minister in charge of Salem Chapel, an all-Black Methodist meeting house where the devoutly religious Tubman attended services. According to family lore, Tubman “would sing and often fall asleep,” Bush says.

Bush, who leads tours highlighting the town’s importance to Black history, says some of her own relatives were born free, but moved to Canada because they could no longer live safely in the U.S. after 1850. That year, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required escaped slaves to be returned to their enslavers. As a result, free men and women could be arrested by federal authorities and trafficked south into slavery.

But not so in Canada, then a British colony where slavery had been outlawed since 1834. In St. Catharines, Black and white townspeople celebrated abolition with a parade each August. The city’s first mayor founded the Refugee Slaves’ Friends Society to provide jobs and housing to freedom seekers.

In Canada, Black people had rights that weren’t available to them in the U.S. They could vote, or take a white person to court. But, Bush added, “They weren’t free from prejudice.”

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According to newspaper accounts from the era, rich whites visiting from the South were horrified at seeing Black people operate freely in society. “They’re yelling at white men: ‘How can you allow this to happen?’” Bush said.

Particularly after 1850, St. Catharines became a hotbed of abolitionist activity, attracting visitors like orator Frederick Douglass, another Maryland native, and John Brown, who met with Tubman there in hopes of recruiting others for his doomed raid on Harpers Ferry. He addressed her as “General.” Here, Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad was well known — and supported.

“It was not a secret to anybody here, not the mayor, not the chief of police,” Bush said. “She was revered in the community.”

Black residents of St. Catharines took jobs in local shipyards, or as servers and bussers in the local tourism industry. Some started their own businesses, and one man opened a brewery. Tubman operated a boardinghouse and likely worked domestic jobs, Bush says.

But freedom for ex-slaves like Tubman wasn’t enough. Once in Canada, “they still had a mission,” Bush said. They raised money to help others make the dangerous journey north.

Through the years Tubman brought dozens of other people from the Eastern Shore, ex-slaves like Josiah “Joe” Bailey, who escaped from Talbot County with Tubman’s help in 1856. That year, The Sun published a “runaway ad” from his owner promising a $1,500 reward if Bailey were caught in Maryland.

Instead, Bailey is said to have wept tears of joy when he arrived in Canada.

Perhaps ironically, around the time of the Civil War, St. Catharines also became a base for Confederate spies. Ex-Confederate president Jefferson Davis was a visitor, staying at the Welland House Hotel, which still stands today.

When the Civil War broke out, Tubman returned to the U.S. to join in the fight, working as a nurse, cook and spy. After the war, Tubman moved to New York, while many of the people she’d helped to freedom settled in cities like Chicago and Cincinnati, places where they could find decent-paying jobs and join in a larger Black communities.

A few, like Bush’s ancestors, stayed in St. Catharines.

Bush, who still attends services at Salem Chapel, is incredibly proud of their legacy. “Words alone couldn’t express it,” she said. She is no less proud of Tubman. As soon as the new $20 bill comes out, she’ll drive across the border to a bank in Niagara Falls, New York, to get one.

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