As the February “blahs” kick in, magnified as they are by the current state of emergency restrictions, now is the perfect time for a walking tour to celebrate Niagara-on-the-Lake’s rich Black history.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum is promoting the Voice of Freedom walking tour as part of its Black History Month resources and programming. Managing director and curator Sarah Kaufman reminds The Local that the museum was heavily involved in the development of the Voices of Freedom Park, the starting point of the tour.
“Our biggest contribution was in developing the Voices of Freedom walking tour app,” explains Kaufman. “People can go to vofpark.org and download the app, and go out and walk and learn more history, or if you’re not as tech-savvy, there’s a little pamphlet holder there that is protected from weather. They can pick up the pamphlet and walk around the community, get outdoors and learn about Black history.”
Indeed, the BaladoDiscovery app is full of interactive images of the stops along the way, accompanied by supporting documents from the museum’s collection of artifacts. As well, at many of the locations, audio clips voiced by local actors bring the participant into the stories of the time. While standing at each location you are able to hear directly from those who were there at the time, such as Fanny Rowley, through diary and journal entries held by the museum.
Visitor and members services assistant Barbara Worthy wrote each of the vignettes. “It’s really animated and interactive,” says Worthy. “You can read about each stop, or you can listen to the stories that bring the people and families alive. The whole thing — the tour, the vignettes, the related school program — was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Heritage Conservation, and that’s thanks to the support of the people in the town.”
During the month, Worthy will be posting to the museum’s website and social media her own one-minute clips of herself enjoying the walking tour. “I’ll just be talking very briefly into the camera about each location, little selfie clips of me doing an illustrated Voices of Freedom walking tour,” she says.
Worthy will also be leading the Documentary Club discussion on Friday, Feb. 5. The club meets once a month on Friday mornings, talking about documentaries from the National Film Board, CBC and Historica Canada. This week’s discussion revolves around the story of Rose Fortune, the Harriet Tubman of the east coast.
Fortune was born into slavery in 1774, in the southern United States. Following the American Revolution, she and her family were owned by loyalists. In 1783, they sailed from New York City to Nova Scotia, where they eventually gained their freedom. Rose began a business transporting luggage in a wheelbarrow from the Annapolis ferry docks to hotels and houses. This became her cover, as she began using that wheelbarrow to help former slaves escape to freedom.
“She was one of those people who just did what had to be done, and kept her profile low, but what she did was really important,” says Worthy. “She never looked back. She saw a need, and she filled that need. She also broke through gender roles and knew how to work the system. People respected her for who she was and what she did.”
Friday’s meeting will be held using Zoom. Worthy says there are about a dozen members of the club, but you don’t have to be a member to join in on the discussion. This year’s series focuses a bit on women, with a documentary about Canada’s first female Member of Parliament, Agnes Macphail being featured on March 5. The documentaries are all free to watch, and Worthy promises a lively, open-ended discussion.
Kaufman points out that virtual events such as the Documentary Club are important these days, while it is impossible for the museum to be open to the public. For Black History Month, she encourages people to visit a virtual exhibit on Black history and culture that is available through the museum’s website.
“Niagara-on-the-Lake really does have a unique Black history compared to other communities,” says Kaufman. “One of the big reasons is that the Act to Limit Slavery was passed here in July, 1793. That’s a huge part of Black history. It’s the first time in the British Empire that slavery was abolished in some form. It was sort of a phased-in approach, but it was a huge deal.”
Kaufman also stresses the importance of the Coloured Corps, the all-Black corps that fought in the War of 1812 and also helped to build Fort Mississauga. The Moseby Affair is another significant event.
“Niagara was the county seat at the time,” Kaufman explains. “Solomon Moseby was a slave who escaped to Canada. His master charged him with theft because he stole a horse to escape. He found Moseby in Canada, and they had a trial to extradite him back to the States. While he was in the jail, there was a huge riot outside supporting Moseby, mostly Black women and some white allies trying to stop the extradition. Solomon ended up escaping and leaving.”
The Solomon Affair, as it is often referred to, eventually resulted in Canada banning the extradition of former slaves back to the United States.
As descendants of slaves and Black loyalists put down roots in town, they owned barber shops and livery stables, were carpenters and farmers and became involved in the community. In 1874, John Waters was elected as the first Black councillor in town, serving two terms amongst an otherwise all white council. The online exhibit features documents and images of all of these stories and more that bring to light the rich Black history of the area.
Looking to the future, both Kaufman and Worthy are hoping to soon access government funding to add to the online offerings. “We have a few mini-documentaries that we have on our YouTube,” says Kaufman. “We’re trying to work toward doing one for Black history as well. It’s really quite significant for a small town like Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
All of the museum’s Black history activities and events can be accessed through their website at http://www.nhsm.ca/.