Not everyone may be aware a momentous piece of Black history took place here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
A new museum exhibit being unveiled this June, however, will be dedicated to this history, and the person instrumental in the passing of the British Empire’s first anti-slavery legislation.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum will open its exhibit “Bound and Determined: Chloe Cooley, Enslavement, and the Fight for Freedom” on June 2, marking 230 years since the Act Against Slavery was passed.
“A lot of people don’t realize that it happened here in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” said Sarah Kaufman, Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum curator, referring to the passing of this act.
Kaufman said the exhibit will show the “significance of our Black history here in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the significance of Chloe Cooley, and the effects she had even in Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
It will also look at enslavement in Upper Canada, who owned enslaved people and the lives of some of the enslaved people who lived in Niagara.
The exhibit will have a special art piece created by an artist in the region, said Kaufman, being unveiled on July 9, coinciding with the anniversary date of the passing of the Act to Limit Slavery.
In March 1793, multiple witnesses heard Cooley fighting and screaming to get away from her enslaver, Adam Vrooman, who was bringing her across the Niagara River to be sold as a slave in the United States.
One of these witnesses was Peter Martin, a Black loyalist, who reported the incident to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe and the Executive Council of Upper Canada.
According to a plaque erected by the Ontario Heritage Trust on the Niagara Parkway, this led Simcoe to introduce legislation calling for the abolishment of slavery.
Following opposition from the House of Assembly, a compromise was reached and the act was passed, preventing the further introduction of slaves into Upper Canada and allowing for the gradual abolition of slavery.
However, no enslaved people already residing in the province were freed outright.
“What (Cooley) might not realize, but we have all realized, is that event, and the witnessing of that event, really led towards the passing of the first anti-slavery legislation,” said Kaufman.
In curating the exhibit, Kaufman and assistant curator Shawna Butts collaborated with two experts: Rochelle Bush, a freedom seeker descendant, owner of Tubman Tours Canada and historian of Salem Chapel; and Natasha Henry-Dixon, a lecturer and Ph.D. candidate in the history department at York University.
“Chloe Cooley’s sacrifice gave tens of thousands of freedom-seeking people of African descent a right she was denied: to live free,” Bush said in a news release.
“She will always be remembered as a fearless enslaved woman who changed the world,” she added.
The exhibit runs from June 2 to Nov. 13 at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum at 43 Castlereagh St.