Lezlie Harper, the first speaker in the Niagara Parks Commission’s three-part series exploring perspectives on Black history and culture in Canada, left her audience at the Queenston Chapel wanting more.
A group of about 60 people in the pews of the former Methodist meeting house — moved by Niagara Parks to the Laura Secord Homestead site — left Harper’s presentation saying the two-hour session ended too soon.
She began her presentation with a brief prayer. “My spirituality is a part of who I am,” she says, and her need to share her stories is “a calling from God.”
And as Harper prefaced each story she told, she said she has so many more to tell, and not nearly enough time to tell them. She doesn’t lecture. She chats, developing a rapport with her audience that feels more like having a conversation, with questions welcomed.
A fifth generation Black Canadian, and descendant of a fugitive slave from Kentucky, Harper begins by showing a photo of her family from around 1920. Her ancestors arrived in Canada in 1851, settling in Fort Erie.
Her great-grandfather, William Chandler, was born in Canada, but left the country to fight in the American Civil War. “Born free in Canada, yet felt compelled to fight in the Civil War in the United States,” she says.
Lavinia Street in Fort Erie is named after her great-grandmother, Lavinia Taylor Chandler.
Harper talks of the impression many people have of freedom seekers coming to Canada along the Underground Railroad, picturing them travelling through a series of tunnels, lanterns in hand, crossing in sturdy boats and maybe carriages to transport them across land.
That was not the case, she said — her great, great-grandfather fled slavery with his brother and nine-year-old sister, hiking alone at night in the dark, no lanterns to guide them, eventually crossing the Niagara River near Buffalo to the northern shore at Fort Erie.
With only the stars for direction, and many cloudy nights, freedom seekers would often walk around in circles, adding miles to their trip, before finding their way across the river, she says.
They were not just escaping slavery, they were fighting social injustice, and that social injustice “isn’t about what white men did to Black men. It’s about what one human can do to another, including Africans, some of whom were involved in slavery,” says Harper.
They would arrive in the U.S., sometimes separated from their families, were put on an auction block, had their teeth checked, treated like cattle sent to market. “They dealt with all of it. It’s an amazing story, that although there was no hope, they fought to survive. That’s the kind of pride I want to infill in our kids.”
She speaks with great fondness of her Uncle Kit, whose real name was Charles Bright. He was a storyteller who loved to pass on her family’s history, and she loved to listen, although, she explains, not all Black families could talk about the fact that their ancestors were enslaved, including some of her own relatives.
She is passionate about sharing those stories, and the experiences of Black families, hers and others, in a way that is much more intimate than anything we could read in a book — although she jokes about the book she might write.
Harper is the founder of Niagara Bound Tours, conducting historical tours throughout the Niagara region, for schools, groups and individuals. “When I’m talking to people,” she says, “they sometimes wonder why we’re not putting these stories in text books, or history books. When people came to Canada as freedom seekers, they needed to put a roof over their heads, feed their stomachs and build their churches. And if white people had enslaved us, why would we say we need to be in history books? We wouldn’t have trusted them. It’s being rectified now though.”
One of these days, she says, she will write a book. “I’m so proud to be a descendant of these people, people who had to suck it up, maintain their faith, accept their station in life. I’ll say to kids, ‘look at this skin, and let me tell you where it’s been.’”
That’s how she feels now. Harper says she grew up feeling invisible, and insignificant, and that only white people
were smart and could go to university.
“I came out of that stronger because of it. I’m confident in my skin,” she says. “I conditioned myself so that when someone used a racial slur or implied bigotry to me I wouldn’t even hear it. I wouldn’t recognize it.”
Today, “when white people are not comfortable with us, I make them comfortable. It’s not a great thing to have to do, but I do it. I’m happy and proud to be a Canadian, and to be a Black Canadian.”
Harper addresses revisionist history, including the name change of the Uncle Tom Cabin Museum in Dresden, Ont.
“My response to changing names in a revisionist world is that the names of the times are the history. To change the names is the removal of the history. Often times this is done without critical thinking, such as what happened with the Uncle Tom Cabin Museum change, to the Josiah Henson Museum of African-Canadian History,” the man on whom the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based.
Some didn’t like the name, but it was “totally a subjective action,” she says, “when there is so much evidence that explains there is nothing wrong with the term Uncle Tom.”
The name change makes her furious, she says. “He was a wonderful man, a noble man, loved by so many.”
At the age of five he witnessed his father being punished for trying to protect his mother. He was whipped, and eventually nailed to a tree by his ear as an example to other slaves. He survived, but was a beaten man.
“If someone called me Uncle Tom, I would wear it as a badge of honour,” says Harper.
She also speaks of the cemetery in NOTL that has had its name changed.
“There is nothing wrong with the term Negro,” she says of the Negro Burial Ground. “Negro after all is from the Spanish word ‘black.’”
She and others have objected to the Ontario Heritage Trust decision to change the name of the Negro Burial Ground in NOTL to the Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground — there are some who are not convinced it was a Baptist Church on the site, and there is no reason to change its name, she says. The new plaque was supposed to be erected during a ceremony expected to take place last June, but that hasn’t happened yet, possibly because of the protests.
“I suspect though they will quietly erect the new plaque, even though there were objections.”
There is a cemetery in Fort Erie, she says, called The Coloured Cemetery, but no talk of changing that — it isn’t likely to happen. “I don’t think they will, as many know that I am from Fort Erie, and they won’t mess with me there,” she laughs.
If Harper ever gets to writing that book, it would be good reading for anyone who wants the unvarnished truth about the lives of the enslaved and freedom seekers, as told by their descendants, and for anyone who wants to understand the importance of having those truths continue to be passed on today and in the future.
There are two more speakers in the Niagara Parks series. Saladin Allah will speak on present-day Freedom Seekers and The Power of our Stories, Feb. 26, and on March 26 Kevin Cottrell will talk about interpreting The Underground Railroad in the age of heritage tourism in the Niagara Region.
For more details and tickets visit niagaraparks.com/blackhistory. Tickets are $15. All sessions will begin at 2 p.m. at the Queenston Chapel at the Laura Secord Homestead, 29 Queenston Street, Queenston, Ont.