I had the honor and privilege recently of escorting from the stage of the Kingston College Auditorium on Epworth Circle in Niagara Falls, Ont., Ms. Wilma Morrison, curator of the Nathaniel Dett Chapel. She and Niagara Falls, Ont., Mayor Salci were there to welcome the full house of standing-room-only guests who had come, like me, to listen to the original music of Niagara's own Nathaniel Dett, born and raised in Niagara Falls, living at various times on either side of the river, though he lies buried there in Fairview Cemetery, where earlier in the afternoon the chorale performed graveside.
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In commemoration of that city's centennial this year, Ann Speedie, President of Niagara Concerts, invited Toronto's Nathaniel Dett Chorale, founded in 1998 by Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, who conducted the evening's performance, which was accompanied by the Joe Sealy Trio.
The evening's powerful production included excerpts from both groups' recordings of music written by Dett, as well as a number of selections written by Sealy with lyrics by Dan Hill. One touching piece drew deep emotional memories from my own experiences growing up black in Niagara Falls, in a neighborhood that has all but disappeared.
Sealy's performance brought tears streaming down my cheeks as it evoked the painful reality of what happened to the community I grew up in, now laid waste by the ravages of time and poor choices.
In his work, Sealy recalls Africville, an actual place that once existed outside of Halifax between 1848 and 1970. His ancestors John, Tom and William Brown settled on the shores of Bedford Basin in the city of Halifax, forming Canada's oldest black community as free men and escaped African slaves made it across the border.
Once our beloved President Millard Fillmore signed the infamous Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, it was no longer safe for runaway slaves to escape to the Northern states. In order to evade the paid bounty hunters, many of whom hung around these very streets in search of prey, they had to get across the border to Canada to be free. Not everyone who tried made it. Many who did had to fight their way to freedom against some rather formidable odds, as well as some rather odd fellows.
Among the more twisted events in local history is the strange tale of the Jerry Rescue (not to be confused with the famous "Jerry Curl" mystery of the 1980s), which took place just up the road in Syracuse on Oct. 1, 1851, while the anti-slavery Liberty Party happened to be holding their New York State Convention.
As the story goes, Underground Railroad stationmaster Jermain Loguen and his supporters had announced their intentions to openly disobey the Fugitive Slave Act, much to the consternation of then-secretary of state Daniel Webster (Mr. Dictionary himself), who proclaimed the law "will be executed in all the great cities -- here in Syracuse -- in the midst of the next Anti-Slavery Convention, if the occasion shall arise." It did!
Around noon on that day, federal marshals from Canandaigua, Syracuse, Auburn and Rochester, along with local police, arrested a barrel-maker at his workplace on a phony theft charge. Once he was manacled, the charge became a violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. His name was William Henry, but he was also known as Jerry.
It didn't take long for word to reach the convention. With a battering ram and a large crowd estimated as large as "2,500 angry men," the prisoner was surrendered. History is not clear on whether Jerry ever made it to Canada, but the event itself is memorialized with a monument in Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse, unlike Niagara Falls, N.Y., where there are no visible monuments in the state park near the falls, where some of the estimated 17 million visitors who come through here every year might gain some recognition of the fact that at least 40,000 slaves escaped into Canada, many from right here.
No doubt the Fugitive Slave Act helped to fuel the rise of Africville, which ultimately grew into a flourishing all-black community of more than 800 people.
Sealy says in the liner notes of his album, "Africville":
"As the roots of Africville grew deeper, the city of Halifax simply grew. In time, new development brought such neighbours as a bone meal fertilizer plant, a slaughterhouse, factories, and eventually, the city dump. Perhaps the most telling symbol of indifference arrived with the railway lines built right through the center of the community dividing it forever, physically, and perhaps even spiritually. Without basic services ... Africville fell victim to neglect. In 1962 the City Council adopted a proposal to offer Africville residents housing in unsegregated, subsidized rental housing ... the bulldozers were not far behind. What was lost was invisible to those who never lived in Africville. They never chased baseballs across the field on cool summer evenings or scrambled for blueberries in the scrub on the hill ... they never heard the piano music from the parlors or the voices raised in praise at church. They never knew what it was like to be six years old, living in Africville and knowing you were safe because you were home."
Sealy's words strike deep at my heart because they remind me of what happened to my own neighborhood, if not my entire city, the victim of well-intentioned, but misguided Urban Renewal projects that dislodged and destroyed entire communities and the families that built them.
It is difficult to understand who we are, why we are where we are, and what to do about it, if we do not remember where we came from and how we got here, if we don't acknowledge, memorialize and celebrate our history.
Thanks to people such as these and countless others who have yet to step up, our future is much brighter than it might otherwise be.
Because of them, our history will never be forgotten.
And that is a good thing!
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Oct. 12 2004|