History tours a ‘calling from God’

Lezlie Harper Wells

Lezlie Harper Wells will spread her wealth of knowledge about Canadian black history to a high school in New Jersey next month.

The Fort Erie native, who for more than a decade has offered customized tours of Niagara’s Freedom Trail, relating the stories of black freedom seekers, was invited to speak to students in Newark in February.

“This is what I’ve been working towards,” she said. “These kids need to hear this message. I am so happy to have this opportunity. I’m over the moon.”

Harper Wells is a direct descendant of a freedom seeker who arrived in Niagara in 1850. Her great, great-grandfather fled slavery in Kentucky with his brother and nine-year-old sister. They hiked thousands of kilometres alone by night, slogged through swamps and swam across rivers. They eventually crossed the Niagara River near Buffalo and settled along the northern shore at Fort Erie.

Harper Wells said her great-grandfather, who was born in Canada, left the country to fight in the Civil War.

“Born free in Canada, yet felt compelled to fight in the Civil War in the United States,” she said.

Harper Wells started her Niagara Bound Tours nearly 12 years ago.

It’s a one-person company and her office, she said, is in her one-bedroom apartment in St. Catharines.

“This is my calling from God,” she said.

Niagara Bound Tours takes in several historical spots around St. Catharines, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie, intended to provide people with a unique insight into the migration of African Americans as they escaped slavery in the mid-19th century and settled in southern Ontario.

Tours include points where freedom seekers crossed the Niagara River, a church that Harriet Tubman, a freedom seeker who settled in Niagara, helped build and worshipped in, and the landing point of Josiah Henson, believed to be the inspiration for a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Along the tour, Harper Wells tells stories, explaining challenges those forced to flee the slave states overcame. Her tours also shed light on the Underground Railroad, a network of people who hid and guided slaves north to freedom.

Harper Wells said she does the tours for groups of two or more people. It was during a recent tour that she got the invitation to speak at a high school in New Jersey from a man who works in the Newark school system.

“It’s about telling the stories accurately and authentically. (In 2015) we saw more return business than ever before,” she said, noting in March it will be 12 years since she started doing the tours.

“I keep it fresh. I am constantly reading and learning about history.”

She said during her February address, she wants the students to learn “why this history is important.”

Others, such as Italians, Germans, Jews, or currently, Syrian refugees, have gone through their own struggles, which is also important to recognize, said Harper Wells.

“It’s something we can all learn from. Hopefully (her address) can help with their self esteem, to instill that self pride, to encourage people to keep moving and be the best that they can be.”

Harper Wells said she has also gone into jails and spoken to inmates about “making better decisions going forward.”

Retelling the stories of the Underground Railroad

Canadian Historic Tour

At age 50, Lezlie Harper Wells wondered what to do with the rest of her life. It was 2004 and she was recovering from a car accident, which left her fatigued and unable to work for an employer.

The St. Catharines resident took a business course and decided to pursue her passion — her family’s rich history.

A descendant of U.S. slaves, she formed Niagara Bound Tours in which she tells the incredible story of the Underground Railroad, a clandestine, informal network of crossing points, people and safe houses in Southern Ontario for black slaves in the 19th century to escape their U.S. owners.

Last Saturday, with delight tinged with some sadness, she stood at an old ferry crossing in Fort Erie beside the Niagara River, and recounted a proud chapter of Canadian history to a bus tour of Southern California teachers.

“Right there on that river,” she motioned. “They came across from that land of fear (pre- Civil War U.S.) to freedom on this shore.”

“Here!” she then pointed to the grass. “Here is where Josiah Henson found freedom, where he jumped for joy, where he kissed the ground.”

Harper Wells told how Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her 1852 novelUncle Tom’s Cabin, based partly on Henson. A little further upriver, she explained how the Niagara Movement, forerunner of the NAACP, was born at the Erie Beach Hotel in 1905.

“I’m so proud all of this has happened in my hometown,” she says.

In the 1850s, Harper Wells’s great, great grandfather, Jack Bright, escaped his Kentucky owners and came to Fort Erie. She’s also traced her roots back to another grandfather, William John Chandler, who was born in London, Ont., and fought for the Union Army in the U.S. Civil War.

Harper Wells has her own examples of racism in Canada. As the only black student in her high school in 1970, she wanted to take a white student to a sorority formal, but the boy’s father wouldn’t allow it. Instead, she wound up going to the formal with the only Chinese student.

“Canada has a wonderful history of accepting minorities, and people are finally recognizing black history, yet black people are often not included in the writing of our history,” she said.

One of the visitors on Saturday’s tour, Ken Morris Jr., a descendant of famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, was impressed.

“History lives in all of us and Lezlie brings this alive through her stories to educators and young people,” he said. “Her message is inspiring: about overcoming challenge and obstacles — not only for our ancestors but for us. We need to know where we came from in order to keep going forward. Her stories go back with teachers and students to their homes around Canada and the United States.”

After the Civil War, many of the slaves went back to the U.S., but others settled across Southern Ontario.

Harper Wells does about 15 tours annually to Niagara cemeteries, crossing points and churches, and is hoping to expand her business.