By Amorette Ngan
The Nicholson family has deep roots in St. Catharines’ history. The family patriarch, Adam Nicholson was a Freedom Seeker who arrived in St. Catharines after escaping bondage in Virginia in 1854. Adam’s son Alexander and his family were active members of the BME (British Methodist Episcopal) church, called Salem Chapel. In the nineteenth century, Salem Chapel was a centre of abolitionist and Civil Rights activities in St. Catharines.
Like many members of its congregation, the Nicholson family were heavily involved in community organizing and activism. For example, Mabel Nicolson (Alexander’s wife) provided room and board for struggling workers who came to the Niagara region to work for McKinnon Industries (later GM) after the company began hiring Black employees. Mabel’s daughter, Helen Smith was at the forefront of efforts to preserve the BME church and have it designated as a National Historic Site.
Salem Chapel was designated in 2000. As Sara Nixon wrote in a 2018 blog post for the St. Catherines’ Musem, the Nicolson’s story is “quintessential of St. Catharines.” And yet, like the stories of many Black activists and important figures in the community of St. Catharines, this family history is not often told.
Because when we discuss Black history in the Niagara Region, the conversation almost always (and frequently exclusively) turns to Harriet Tubman.
I always heard about Harriet Tubman’s accomplishments as a child growing up in Markham, Ontario. Tubman accomplished many noteworthy things during the 19th century and is celebrated as having been a beacon of hope for free and enslaved populations in North America. Her story dominates the way nineteenth century Canadian history is taught to students in Ontario.
The problem is our overt focus on her participation in the Underground Railroad takes the spotlight away from other important events and figures contemporary to this history.
Harriet Tubman’s influence affects historical sites like the Salem Chapel. The congregation at Salem Chapel, (originally called Bethel Chapel) began to meet during the 1820s and united the Black citizens of St. Catharines from the freedom seekers who arrived in the nineteenth century to the present day. The current structure at 92 Geneva Street was built in the 1850s.
Harriet Tubman attended this church during her time at St Catharines, from 1851-1862. Tubman was an Underground Railroad conductor who assisted around 100 people escape slavery between 1849-1860. As a result of her honourable deeds as well as how her story affirms Canadian pretensions of our country as a “land of freedom” from slavery, her history is overemphasised in St. Catharines and in discussing Salem Chapel’s history alike. In July 1993, the Canadian Government established a bust and plaque that was erected outside the chapel commemorating Tubman’s links to the church.
Rosemary Sadler states that her cousin Helen Smith was a key player in bringing Harriet Tubman’s story to St. Catharines. The emphasis on Tubman is carried on under the current director’s management. The church’s communal value to the Black community in St. Catharines takes a backseat in Tubman’s story. Focus on her deeds cause a lack of scholarly or public interest in the broader Black community’s historical and societal significance in St. Catharines and the period after Tubman’s departure from the city.
Tubman was fond of St. Catharines, and lived there between 1849-1860, during her time there she attended the BME church as it was called then. An economic boom in the 1850s made jobs in St. Catharines accessible for Freedom seekers. Due to its proximity to the Canadian American border, St. Catharines became a terminal of the Underground Railroad. Like Tubman, many self-emancipators made their homes in the region after arriving in Canada.
Salem Chapel played a significant role among the Black St. Catharinites, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like in most Underground Railroad communities, the church became a gathering place and support network for newcomers to the city. As both a place of worship and socialization, the church was the centre of Black activism, community organizing, and intellectualism across this period.
In Underground Railroad communities like St. Catharines, the church provided spiritual care, education, and hosted social and economic organizations that were necessary to build new communities. For these reasons, scholars often comment that “the earliest and most important institutions in all Black Upper Canadian communities were the churches.” In the early nineteenth century the church provided shelter and support to the Black community, and provided a tightknit society within St. Catharines.
The never-ending focus on the Underground Railroad in communities like St. Catharines, Chatham, or Amherstburg dominates the way we share the histories of these spaces. While blame for this lies partly at the feet of museum directors who hope to appeal to a wide audience, public appetite for the “freedom myth” is a greater culprit. Helen Smith and her work in illuminating Tubman’s connections to Salem Chapel helped the chapel gain recognition. However, in the decades since, scholars studying Canadian Black history have highlighted more complex, longer, histories that deserve greater attention. We need to share and spread other stories that challenge the myth that Canada was a “free and equal” society for all citizens in the nineteenth century.
How do we create an appetite for these more complex, more complete, community histories?
I would argue it starts in the classroom and in our textbooks. Children need to be taught about this history early on, having accurate and updated resources available that can help jumpstart this learning. They need a chance to be educated about these complex community histories, giving the next generation a better possibility of becoming more informed about these stories and their meanings. It is time for the heroes to rest and for the people that were behind the scenes helping these heroes – and building community – to be known.
At sites like Salem Chapel, this means that we can have our Tubman, but we should demand that she share the spotlight with others too.
Amorette Ngan is a Music Education student at Western University, aiming to teach high school History and Music in the future.
“BMH Part 2: Family Legacies- The Nicholson-Smith Family,” St. Catharines Museum Blog, 2018, https://stcatharinesmuseumblog.com/2018/02/13/bmh-part-2-family-legacies-the-nicholson-smith-family/amp/.
“Salem Chapel, British Methodist Episcopal Church National Historic Site of Canada,” Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations, accessed January 25, 2023, https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=1900#:~:text=Salem%20Chapel%20British%20Methodist%20Episcopal%20Church%20was%20designated%20a,site%20of%20Canada%20in%202000.
“BMH Part 2: Family Legacies- The Nicholson-Smith Family,” St. Catharines Museum Blog, 2018, https://stcatharinesmuseumblog.com/2018/02/13/bmh-part-2-family-legacies-the-nicholson-smith-family/amp/
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