Long before Deadmau5 and Honeymoon Suite became notable musical exports from Niagara Falls, a composer, organist, and music professor named Robert Nathaniel Dett did his part to change the image and direction of Afrocentric music in the early 1900s.
Dett showed his flair for music at an early age. Encouraged by his mother, Dett started taking piano lessons at age five. Years later, while studying at the Oberlin Conservatory, Dett heard the music of Antonín Dvořák and was inspired to take the folk songs and spirituals learned from his grandmother — “the melodies of an enslaved people” he called them — and work them into his Classical compositions.
Dett was seriously accomplished. He was the first black student to complete the five-year course at Oberlin. He went on to perform at Carnegie Hall and was a prize-winning student at Harvard. He became the first black director of music at the Hampton Institute and was president of The National Association of Negro Musicians. Canada’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale continues to perform his music to this day, as well as that of other composers of African descent.
Back in his hometown, the chapel Nathaniel Dett attended as a child was renamed in his honor in 1983. The church was built in 1836 by liberated slaves who escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. It’s a simple and unassuming wooden frame structure in the Upper-Canada Georgian style, with blue clapboard siding and Gothic Revival stained glass windows. It stands today as the third-oldest church in Niagara Falls.
Inside the cozy, mostly-original interior is the main attraction — an ornately carved organ dating to 1897, believed to be the one a young Dett played when he was employed here as an organist. Visitors can see the organ in plain view during regular public services.
In the back of the chapel is a 1,400-volume black history reference library, historical photos, and genealogical info — and, of course, a gift shop.
Humble though it may be, the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel is designated a National Heritage landmark site and represents an important part of Canada’s role in the history of the Underground Railroad.
Know Before You Go
In 1943, Robert Nathaniel Dett died of heart failure while on tour with the USO and is buried next to his wife and children at Fairview Cemetery, a mile and a half from the chapel.