New collection shows lives of early black settlers in Canada

This photo of two unidentified women depicts Niagara Falls in the background.

This photo of two unidentified women depicts Niagara Falls in the background.

Brock is celebrating Black History Month by launching a new digitized collection of local records.

reverend-wright-and-familySpecial Collections and Archives recently obtained photos and papers (c. 1850-1950) documenting the Bell and Sloman families, who descended from former slaves who came to Canada after the American Civil War.

The 97 images are wonderful glimpses at historic faces: mostly taken in Ontario, many of them studio portraits, some still unidentified.

The collection will be posted to a Knowledge Ontario site, “Our Ontario,” at

“It will be publicly available and we hope the collection will grow over the coming years,” said David Sharron, head of Special Collections and Archives. “This is the first major archival collection of any kind on black history for Brock. We do have some individual pieces but this is a real body of work.”

Documents include:

  • marriage certificates;
  • an 1874 tithing receipt from the British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church in St. Catharines (designated a National Historic Site for its association with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad);
  • a note from William Still, a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad whose Philadelphia boarding house was a safe haven for hundreds of former slaves en route to freedom.

The collection was donated by retired Thorold firefighter Rick Bell, a Niagara Falls native who was the first black professional firefighter in Niagara. He now lives in the London area.

Bell rescued the collection from the attic of his mother’s St. Catharines home when insulation work was being done. Last November, he donated them to Brock.

“As I opened each case, turned each page, and gazed upon each picture, I felt something,” Bell said. “I don’t know what it was but I knew that I could not allow any of it to be tossed away.”

“My wife, Loretta, helped me put together a PowerPoint presentation based on the artifacts. We talk about slavery in the Southern States, escape to freedom in Canada and what things are like today.”

The collection has materials relating to the Bells and associated family and friends — including the Sloman, Tyrell and Butler families. The Bells and Tyrells were based in St. Catharines with occupations in coal and ice delivery and jewelry/watch making. The Slomans and Butlers were based in Biddulph Township, just north of London, where Peter Butler III was a constable in Lucan during the time of the Black Donnellys (late 19th Century). He later became the first black Ontario Provincial Police officer.

“I must say relieved that these items are not only safely preserved, but more importantly, being used to educate others,” Bell said.

There is a Black History Month display in the bookcase on the ground floor hallway of the south side of the library. Also, the Roots African Caribbean Society has a series of events planned for the month. For more information, see or email

Charles Bell

Charles Bell

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3 comments on “New collection shows lives of early black settlers in Canada”

  1. […] An article about this acquisition by the Brock University Special Collections and Archives can be found here. […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Anna St.Onge, Dave Schulz. Dave Schulz said: RT @BrockUniversity: New collection shows lives of early black settlers in Canada […]

  3. Kathy Grant says:

    I am delighted that this truly remarkable collection of “Canadian History” was donated to Brock and that it will be preserved for educational use and research. The images are truly stunning.

    Thank you Rick Bell. Thank you Brock.

    Kathy Grant
    The Legacy Voices Project.