Not much is known about them.
They appear in formal attire before a plain backdrop, their hair perfectly coiffed and their faces without expression. The Black men and women in the compelling tintype photos immediately demand attention with their gaze, and yet their names remain a mystery.
But Edie Williams, Brock’s Archives and Special Collections Assistant, is hopeful we will someday learn more details of the striking photographs contained within the University’s Rick Bell collection.
Williams recently completed an online exhibit featuring pieces from the remarkable collection that was donated to the University by Rick Bell in 2010. The collection features more than 300 photos and various papers spanning more than a century and documenting the Bell and Sloman families, who descended from former slaves in the American south and later laid roots in Niagara.
Although the people in the tintype photos are unidentified, the pictures tell a story and were deemed important enough to the family to be kept all these years, Williams said.
“Those photographs were cherished by someone in the family. Someone knew who they were at some point and they were valuable to them.”
Williams has spent time studying the photos and believes several of the tintypes were taken in the same studio — identified through similarities in the pictures, including use of the same iron chair.
The images provide a snapshot in time of the family’s journey.
“They say ‘We have come a long way. Look at how we’re dressed. We are able to have a photograph taken. We look like we’ve arrived and are doing well. We’ve come so far out of slavery,’” Williams said. “We don’t know their slavery story, but I think other researchers should take up the challenge to find out that piece of the puzzle.”
Williams hopes the online exhibit inspires further exploration into the Bell family’s history.
“These digital exhibits give you a taste of what can be done with these pieces, but it’s only the beginning of the story, only the beginning of research possibilities,” she said. “I started putting pieces of the puzzle together, but there’s so much of this story left to tell.”
Admittedly fascinated by the collection, Williams was captivated by the pieces the family chose to keep safe for decades, including tithing receipts from the 1870s and 1880s from Salem Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines. Designated a national historic site, the church was built by Harriet Tubman and other freed slaves who arrived in Canada via the Underground Railroad.
The family also kept an advertisement from William Still, an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, who left a handwritten note in the document’s margins expressing connection to St. Catharines.
The Bell family fonds is Brock’s most extensive Black history collection, Williams said, and the decision was made to highlight it early in the year to encourage further exploration of its contents by researchers and students alike.
“We are very fortunate to have these and similar resources in the Brock Archives and Library,” said David Sharron, Head of Archives and Special Collections. “Every term we have students visit us who are very keen to explore these subjects. Moving forward, I hope that we can acquire more records that chronicle this important history from the earliest times to the present.”
While Brock marked African Heritage Month / Black History Month with a series of virtual events, the University continues throughout the year to encourage conversations about and research into this important aspect of history.
Kattawe Henry, Human Rights and Anti-Racism Advisor in Brock’s Office of Human Rights and Equity, said it is “essential that we familiarize folks with learning about and learning from Black people.”
“The discomfort that people feel when they hear of programming outside of Black History Month speaks to the undertones of anti-Blackness that permeates our society,” she said.
“Quite often, folks feel as though we need to ‘segregate’ learning of Black histories to February, the coldest, shortest month of the year, and fail to question how anti-Blackness has impacted our histories every day, every year, all year throughout our history.”
In addition to the Bell family fonds, Brock’s Archives and Special Collections is home to several historical pieces that document Black history locally and beyond. They include:
- A copy of William Still’s 1879 book, The Underground Railroad. This book is filled with the personal stories of the people Still helped find freedom. It also includes several mentions of the Niagara area.
- An 1865 St. Catharines city directory that notes the male members of the Black community among the listings. This includes Daniel and George Ross, members of Harriet Tubman’s family.
- Brock has many local newspapers dating to the early 19th century that sometimes reported on the Black community.
- There are also numerous books, theses and other works that detail Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad and the local Black community through time.
- Chantal Gibson’s book of poetry, How She Read. One of the book’s poems was inspired by a photo in Rick Bell’s fonds and Harriet Tubman.
- Masonic photo albums of the Eureka Lodge #20, Prince Hall in Toronto from 1970-80. The collection includes photos of Black Shriners and Masons, including Arthur Downes, one of Canada’s first Black Canadian Grand Masters.