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.”