To begin our celebration and commemoration of #BlackHistoryMonth we want to take a moment to reflect on the difficulty many people faced when making the historic and dangerous journey to our community. The Welland Museum’s travelling exhibit, “Passage to Freedom: Secrets of the Underground Railroad,” explores some of those journeys. Normally our exhibit is on loan to other museums for their visitors to enjoy but this year, like everything else, it has stayed in Welland and we are able to feature some of it virtually for the community.

The Underground Railroad was an informal network of people who assisted slaves escaping to Northern States and Canada, where they would be “free”. The term “underground” was used due to the network’s secret status, while “railroad” referred to the use of cheap rates given by railroad workers, or the necessity of hiding individuals in freight or cargo trains to move across country. The people who assisted in the Underground Railroad, known as “conductors,” gave food, shelter, directions, or transport to those needing help. This involved helping slaves travel in wooden crates, hide in attics and small spaces, and navigate crossing swamps or other dangerous terrain. Often the conductors were located in Canada where they could organize travel and safe houses from a distance. Although many conductors’ identities were kept secret, some gained high profile attention. A few are well known names locally – such as Harriet Tubman, who lived in St. Catharines for most of the decade before the start of the Civil War and helped encourage growth of the Black community in the area.

Anti-Slavery societies helped those who reached Canada start their new lives. The Refugee Slaves’ Friends Society was founded by the first mayor of St. Catharines, Elias Smith Adams, in 1852. The Society’s goal was to offer financial, housing and employment assistance to fugitives who arrived in the area. Many Black settlements grew in Niagara after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law in the United States, which legally allowed bounty hunters to scour the Northern States and return runaway slaves to their owners. However, the fresh start in Canada was not freedom from racial persecution, and discrimination ultimately led to racial segregation among communities here in Canada. White militia units set fire to residences in Black communities in St. Catharines, and many businesses attempted to employ bans on Black people using their services. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, many of these communities shrank as their inhabitants returned to the United States to fight with the Northern Union.

There is a notable piece of local information contained in the story of the Underground Railroad. James “Jim” Richard Wilson was a resident of Welland County who came to Canada through Detroit in 1864. He was born to slave parents on a plantation near Korent, Missouri on December 25, 1821. At the age of 10, Mr. Wilson was sold at auction for $500 to a wealthy family. He was then sold to a particularly cruel family at the age of 25. He attempted to escape this family and head to Illinois but was captured and brought back to Missouri where he was severly punished. Thirteen years of hardened labour convinced him to try again at great risk to his life. He made his way onto a Mississippi steamboat, and escaped through the Northern lines during the Civil War. Mr. Wilson joined the community of Welland and was married at the McCabe house. He worked in a variety of jobs, including on a scow in the Welland River. He passed away in his home on Church Street on March 22, 1930 at the age of 108, survived by two sons and a daughter. He was described in an article in The Welland – Port Colborne Evening Tribune dated March 22, 1930 as “Welland county’s most picturesque figure for more than 40 years.”