Niagara Falls has a long, strong tie to black history. As one of the ending points for the Underground Railroad, which funneled escaped slaves to Canada where slavery was wholly illegal by that time, the rushing Falls heralded true liberty to African-Americans fleeing unjust enslavement. A proud black community has thrived in the region since the 19th century, and countless important events in civil rights have taken place on Niagara’s shores — including the Niagara Movement.
A monumental development in black culture, the Niagara Movement marked a new era of civil rights filled with choices for the African-Americans all over the continent. This February, during your trip or vacation to Niagara Falls, revel in the profound history of Niagara’s black community for Black History Month, and learn about the significant advances of the Niagara Movement.
A Country in Turmoil
Though blacks in America had gained unprecedented levels of freedom after the North won the American Civil War, Southern states continued to enforce restrictions on African-American rights. For example, segregation laws became more restrictive, and voting laws were amended to exclude blacks from polling places. The most powerful African-American orator at the time, Booker T. Washington, argued that blacks shouldn’t agitate politically for equivalence with whites, which enraged dozens of prominent African-American activists who sought equality above all else.
Two such irate men, W.E.B. Du Bois and William Trotter, staunchly and vociferously opposed Washington’s stance. Du Bois and Trotter often advocated taking action, but despite several confrontations with Booker and his followers, the pair were largely ignored. However, by 1905, it was the view of many that Washington’s passive methods were not fulfilling the black community’s needs.
A Meeting for Change
Fed up with the lack of progress from Washington’s passivism, Du Bois, Trotter, and a handful of other furious and motivated African-Americans planned to meet in Buffalo, New York in 1905 to discuss forming a more powerful activist group that could effect change. However, after being refused accommodation in Buffalo, the group relocated north of the border to a hotel in southern Ontario where they would not be bothered by press or dissenters. Due to the location of the group’s formation, they quickly identified as the Niagara Movement.
During their first meeting the group organized their founding principles, namely:
- Unrestricted suffrage for all male blacks.
- Equal treatment for all.
- Equal economic opportunities, particularly for blacks in the South who continued to labor in “virtual slavery.”
- Compulsory, free education for all.
- Equal punishments for all criminals, regardless of race.
- And other demands for equality under law and culture.
By the end of the year, the founding members had established 21 chapters of the movement containing a total of 170 members. The movement created two different publications, “The Moon” and “The Horizon,” to rally support from black and white communities alike. The Niagara Movement’s efforts did, in fact, effect change in several states: In Massachusetts, the movement thwarted lawful segregation in railroad cars, and race riots around the country brought attention to the continued struggles of blacks.
Its Ripples in History
However, due to organizational problems at the foundation of the movement — including a lack of physical headquarters — the movement’s power petered out around 1910. Though the Niagara Movement was short-lived, it has always been considered a crucial precursor to the immensely powerful National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Niagara Falls’ involvement in one of the first activist groups battling racial injustice in the 20th century is undeniably important, which is why the Niagara region is such a profound place to visit during Black History Month.