Salem Chapel: A Contemporary History
Gail Benjafield, with information from Salem Chapel historian, Rochelle Bush
The Historical Society of St. Catharines (HSSC) has long been supportive of the British Methodist Episcopal Church (B.M.E), at 92 Geneva St, also known as Salem Chapel. Salem Chapel is arguably the most iconic building in the city, with three plaques attesting to its prominence in the city’s history. Those plaques are from the Federal, Provincial and Municipal governments, all recognizing Harriet Tubman’s many treks to the city, treks that brought many freedom fighting black slaves from the United States to a safe place. This movement is best known as the Underground Railroad.
The history of The Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s time in St. Catharines (1851-1861) is well documented, even if some of the writings about the Underground Railroad and Tubman are weighted with some invention and mythology. Over the last 30-40 years, individual members of the community and of the HSSC have brought as much attention as possible to the church, by holding meetings about black history in Niagara, or hosting speakers of some renown regarding the history of the Underground Railroad.
Because of the desperate need for repairs to Salem Chapel, a GoFundMe online account began, hoping to raise $100,000 for needed repairs. https://www.gofundme.com/preserving-salem-chapel
Among the speakers who have enlightened the community on the movement of blacks to the city are Dr. Dan Broyld from Rochester, Dr. Kate Clifford Larson from Massachusetts and several of our HSSC board members. Of course, church historian Rochelle Bush has given some colourful talks to the society about Tubman and family, always of great interest.
Dr. Larson’s talks at the church in the last decade have been of particular interest as she noted many achievements of the Underground Railroad, and drew attention to some of the myths surrounding it. She questioned the idea of helpers along the way putting quilts on their porches as a sign of a safe house, as was told in a book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. Larson suggested that the idea of wealthy white residents displaying quilts to escaping slaves was, at best, fanciful. Historian Larson’s 2014 book on the Underground Railroad, Bound for the Promised Land, is possibly the benchmark book for correct information on Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad movement.
One notable achievement was the placing of a Tubman plaque in the small garden beside the church. The local horticultural society has voluntarily provided the landscaping and maintenance. As well, a new school in central St. Catharines has been named the Harriet Tubman School. In the summer months, tours of Salem Chapel are a regular feature in Niagara’s Black History. Despite the huge interest in this iconic site, the church has only eleven members.
Every year in March, the B.M.E. has held a fundraising event and dinner in the church basement, following a service or lecture in the main nave. The food is homely and warm, much appreciated by the many community members who attend. This year’s fundraiser is set for Sunday, March 4th.
To date, more than $50,000 has been raised, much of it from small anonymous donations to considerable amounts from organizations such as the Historical Society of St. Catharines. Donations, big or small, are encouraged! https://www.gofundme.com/preserving-salem-chapel
Editor’s Note: The Niagara Peninsula Branch has contributed to this effort by matching funds raised by the students at Harriet Tubman School.