Blacks in Niagara Falls, New York: 1865 to 1965, a Survey

Article excerpt

Niagara Falls, New York is a city 22 miles northwest of Buffalo and 84 miles southeast of Toronto. It is well known that Niagara Falls is famous for its cataracts, and that people historically have traveled there from all over the world and throughout the United States to witness the majestic beauty of the waterfalls. Niagara Falls, after all, is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world and attracts thousands of tourists daily. However, not much is known about the black community that has historically resided in Niagara Falls.

The black community is a part of the city's history and culture. Blacks settled there, like other Niagara Fallsians, not because of the scenic beauty of the Falls but to earn a livelihood, as the city has historically maintained a thriving tourist industry, electrical plants, and factories that needed a copious labor force. Blacks have gained employment in these and other industries and have been an integral part of the city's labor force since the period of slavery in the United States.

During the Slavery Era, many blacks traveled through Niagara Falls en route to Canada. Niagara Falls was one of the final stations of the celebrated Underground Railroad. Before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it was not uncommon for escaped slaves to settle in northern communities, such as Niagara Falls, and become citizens of those communities. However, once the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 became law, there was a mass exodus of escaped slaves to Canada. It is estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 slaves escaped to Canada during the nineteenth century, many of them passing through Niagara Falls on their way to freedom. This aspect of Niagara Falls' black history is well known and well documented; however, the period after 1865 is not.

The aim of this paper is to survey and introduce the history of blacks in Niagara Falls, New York from 1865 to 1965, focusing on such themes as employment, population expansion, community development, leadership and racial conflict. Black Niagara Fallsians, like other black American residents in their respective communities, strove to be part of the mainstream of the city of Niagara Falls as well as to maintain their own cultural identity. Job and educational opportunities, access to political power and available housing are a few of the major issues that were of concern to them. Surveying and introducing this important history will hopefully encourage others to conduct further research.

The historical experience of blacks in Niagara Falls is similar to that of other black northern urban communities. (1) They existed on the fringes of society, never being an influential group within the broader community, and never having a major role in the political, economic or social affairs of the overall community. Their presence was largely tolerated or ignored until their numbers increased significantly, making them more noticeable and more threatening, especially as they attempted to gain more living space. Although racial tensions heightened in Niagara Falls, they never rose to the level that prevailed in larger cites, where they culminated in full-scale race riots.

THE FIRST 35 YEARS AFTER SLAVERY

In 1850, the year the severe fugitive slave law was enacted and well before racial tensions became detectable, 41 blacks were residing in Niagara Falls. (2) In 1860 two hundred and forty-two blacks were living in Niagara Falls. (3) Due to the proximity of Canada to Niagara Falls, many of those individuals were probably escaped slaves who resided in the United States and at times in Canada, depending on where they could find steady employment. By 1865, the year that slaves were emancipated, 126 blacks were living in Niagara Falls. (4) Many of those who were in Niagara Falls in 1860 probably returned to regions in the South to be with family members and other loved ones.

After slavery Niagara Falls was a relatively safe place for blacks to reside. …