Burr Plato

(1833 - 1905)

One of the outstanding citizens of early Niagara Falls was Burr Plato. Plato was born into slavery in West Virginia in 1833. At the age of twenty three he decided to escape to freedom. Along with seven other slaves he made his way along the network of secret routes and safe houses of the so called Underground Railway to Fort Erie Ontario.

As a slave he had no possibility of an education, but he believed that literacy was the only sure way to success. He settled in Niagara Falls and worked as a farmhand and porter while he learned to read and write.

Signature of Burr Plato on a petition by hack owners, requesting to allow soliciting on the River Road near the Suspension Bridge

Signature of Burr Plato on a petition by hack owners, requesting to allow soliciting on the River Road near the Suspension Bridge "Providing that they do not annoy strangers"

With proficiency in these skills he decided to own his own business and bought a horse and carriage and became what was knowns as a hackman, the taxi service of the day. He bought a house, married and eventually had ten children. He was an active member of the British Methodist Episcopal Church and became aware of its importance as the centre for the spiritual
and social life of the escaped slaves of the town. His sense of citizenship also grew and he wanted to take an active role in civic life. He ran for councilman in 1886, in what was then the Village of Niagara Falls. He was supported not only by the black members of the community, but by his white neighbours as well.

In addition to his work ethic and his courage, Burr Plato had a sense of humour. Although he was duly elected to public office in that election, there were members of the community who could not believe that “an illiterate former slave” was suitable as a member of council. There were those who claimed he could not possibly be literate and therefore not qualified. A
newspaper report of the time about the newly elected village council describes a more welcoming attitude and how Plato met the disparagement. He obviously handled it with aplomb. He merely stood up in the meeting and read aloud the newspaper article in question.

The newspaper noted that outsiders might doubt the qualification of this man but local people had decided he was among the best men they had and suggested that he would be a first class warden for 1887. It proposed he should be sent to the county council the next year, hoping that he might there meet other men equally well qualified.

Plato was one of the first Black persons in Canada elected to political office and he held the position until he died in 1905 at the age of 72. Appreciation for his many contributions to the life of the community were evident in the large attendance of friends and and colleagues at his funeral.

He is buried in Drummond Hill Cemetery

Copy of certificate sending sympathy to the family of Burr Plato from the City of Niagara Falls upon Plato's death, c. 1905. Signed by Mayor W. Phemister; John Robinson, Clerk; and Aldermen.

Copy of certificate sending sympathy to the family of Burr Plato from the City of Niagara Falls upon Plato's death, c. 1905. Signed by Mayor W. Phemister; John Robinson, Clerk; and Aldermen.

see Living Toronto “Torontonian Discovers Family’s Links to Underground Railroad” by Miria Ioannou 2 Jan 2017

Article by Fred Habermehl

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