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The early 20thcentury was a time of great movements of humanity to and through North America. When an image of new settlers coming to the prairies comes up, it tends to be of Europeans leaving their homelands for the wide open areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
There was another wave of immigration though and it came from the Deep South of America and it was black immigration to Canada.
At the time in the American South, Jim Crow Laws were being implemented that enforced racial segregation against black people.
In Oklahoma, which was awarded statehood in 1907, racial segregation came in the same year. Originally, there was no call for strict segregation in the Oklahoma Constitution out of fear that President Roosevelt would veto the document. Once the document was approved, the first legislature of Oklahoma wrote segregation into law with the state’s first senate bill. Interracial schools, marriages and public facilities were banned completely. A total of 540 railroad depots in the state had to be altered with new separate waiting rooms for blacks and white. In 1915, the state would become the first in the United States to segregate public pay telephone booths.
Lynchings were not uncommon either. Between 1885 and 1930, there would be 50 lynchings of black people in the state. Throughout the United States, focusing typically in the south though, 4,745 people would by lynched from 1882 to 1964, and 72.7 per cent were black. A total of 73 per cent of all lynchings took place in the American South.
It would come as no surprise then that in the space of only two years, with Canada’s immigration system opened up, there would be a large black migration from the American south to the Canadian Prairies.
Obidiah Bowen would say of his family’s decision to move and the changing climate of Oklahoma for blacks.
“When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, things began getting worse for our people. So, my father, always ambitious and proud, wanted to go where every man was accepted on his merit or demerit, regardless of race, colour or creed. So in the summer of 1909, we moved to Canada.”
For many of the Oklahoma settlers, they had come from other areas of the American South on the belief that Oklahoma had no segregation. Unfortunately, this turned out to not be the case. Jefferson Edwards had originally lived in Arkansas before coming to Oklahoma on that belief.
Between 1909 and 1911, 1,000 African Americans came to Alberta, settling in many different areas and forming communities.
Amber Valley was one of those places.
In 1909, a group of 160 African-American homesteaders left Oklahoma and Texas for the government promise of land to homestead.
Leaving the racist conditions that caused extreme discrimination of their rights, the settlers hoped to find something better in Alberta and would found several communities.
The group of settlers to settle in Amber Valley were led by Parson Harrison Sneed, clergyman and mason, as well as Willis Reese Bowen, who organized the original five families to settle in the area.
Sneed had come out to the land north of Edmonton to scout it out.
When the group made their way to Canada, the Northern News reported the following:
“A bunch of Coloured Folk accompanied by their families and household goods came in from Edmonton last week. We understand it is their intention to locate somewhere in the vicinity.”
Before we go into the deeper history of Amber Valley, I want to look at some of the original settlers who came to the area to settle.
Willis Bowen was born on Feb. 6, 1875 in Butler County, Alabama and would originally settle in Vancouver when he came to Canada. He was employed hauling gravel by horse-team, earning $25 per day but the family still did not have much money. After the death of their youngest child from a coastal bacterial infection, the family of eight children and Willis and his wife Jeanie moved to Amber Valley with the original settlers in 1911.
In Amber Valley, he worked as a freighter hauling goods from Athabaska to Lac La Biche. In addition, he worked on grain farms, at a packing plant in Edmonton and on a ranch in Saskatchewan. He was also the postmaster for the area and the first black man in Alberta to be given a permit to operate a post office.
His wife Jean would pass away in 1932, and Willis would die in 1975.
Their home would become an Alberta Historic Site. It was a 1.5 storey house, located on 1.21 hectares of land. It is the oldest house in the area of Amber Valley and its style of construction is very rare in Canada. The property was named for Obadiah Bowen, the son of Willis, who built the house to replace the original log cabin the family lived in.
Their grandson of Willis and Jean, Oliver Bowen, would make a name for himself in Calgary, becoming the designer of the Calgary CTrain, which is now one of the busiest light rail transit systems in North America.
John and Stella King would settle in the area but would move to Calgary in 1919. Their child Violet King Henry would become the first black Canadian female attorney. She was also the first black person to graduate law in Alberta, and the first black person admitted to the Alberta Bar. In addition, she was the first woman named to a senior management position with the American national YMCA.
While not born in Amber Valley, a descendant of Harrison Sneed would be born in Calgary named Floyd Sneed. His sister would marry Tommy Chong and it was from his sister he would receive his first drum kit. He would join a group of musicians who would go on to become Three Dog Night, who had 21 Top 40 hits and three number one songs.
Jefferson Edwards would come with his wife Martha to Amber Valley and they would marry in Alberta and raise 10 children together. Edwards was well-known in the area for his involvement in many local groups and boards. In 1973, the Government of Alberta recognized him for his involvement in sports and politics, and in community building, with the Achievement Award in Humanities. He would pass away in 1979.
Back to the migration.
While the doors opened for black settlers under the immigration campaign of Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior, to bring more settlers to the prairies, Sifton was not happy with African Americans coming to Canada. He had wanted European immigrants for the most part. He then sent a letter to the immigration officers in the American South to have them dissuade black farmers from coming to Canada. He would also implement clearly racist policies that created barriers to immigration, which made it more difficult for black immigrants to come to Canada. These policies included putting out warnings such as this one:
“The American negro may be barred on the ground that he could not become adapted to the rigorous northern climate.”
A black medical doctor from Chicago was hired by the Canadian government to go to Oklahoma and speak about how those who immigrated to Canada would starve or freeze to death, and that the soil was poor.
Those policies would remain in place until 1962 when they were overturned, with help from Violet King Henry, whose parents, as we saw, benefited from the pre-racist policies and made it to Canada.
Even getting into the country during that brief period of 1909 to 1911 was not easy. The first wave of settlers had to deal border officials who scrutinized the immigrants for anything, medical or moral, that would justify keeping them out of Canada. After rigorous medical examinations, which included looking at the livestock and children, the group was granted entry into Canada. One child, aged five, was rejected simply because he had a broken leg.
At first, the living was difficult and the harsh winter weather of Alberta was not an easy adjustment for the settlers from Oklahoma. In addition to the harsh weather, the settlers had to clear and cultivate the land, and build houses from the ground up. Typically, these were log cabins and the land was mostly muskeg that had to be made ready for crops. Most of the settlers had to wait two years before they could harvest their first crops. In addition, they had to cut their own road to the community.
The settlers were tough and worked hard on the land and 75% stayed in the area and farmed their land long enough in order to secure their homestead patents. The percentage of black settlers who remained on their land long enough for the patent was higher than the percentage of other settlers groups in the prairies.
In 1913, a school house was built, followed by a non-denominational church the following year. The school was named Toles School, named for Nimrod Toles, an early settler from Oklahoma to the area. The school educated children up to grade eight.
In 1919, a log building was built and called the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a two-acre cemetery was also built for the community.
By the 1930s, Amber Valley had become the largest community of black people in Alberta and it would receive a post office in 1931 and the name would change from Pine Creek to Amber Valley. The name came at the suggestion of a local teacher who said Amber Valley matched the colour of the land.
At the time, 300 people lived in the community and they even had a two-room schoolhouse for the large influx of children in the area.
Racism was still seen in the area, with occasional racist slurs yelled when one of the black settlers was in a predominately white community. Slurs and some discrimination was the extant of what the black settlers faced, with no threats on their lives as was seen in the American South at the time. Nonetheless, the resistance to the settlers was extreme at times.
The Edmonton Board of Trade would say of the influx, “Those negroes who have been here some time have had a square deal and been treated as whites, but if you get a few thousand more in, conditions would be much changed.”
The Board of Trade was one of the leaders of the opposition to black immigration and were able to attract 3,000 signatures on a petition opposing the immigration, despite Edmonton only having a population of 25,000 at the time.
The United Farmers of Alberta also had a similar racist view saying, “We consider negroes undesirable as fellow citizens of this province.”
That being said, there were some big differences between Oklahoma and Alberta. Jefferson Edwards told a story of being in a bar in Athabasca and staring down a fight with another person in the bar. Suddenly, Francophones dropped what they were doing to defend Edwards.
The Ukrainians of the area, who had dealt with discrimination of their own, would work together with the black community to improve both group’s lands.
While the community thrived during that time, so too did the baseball team that became famous for defeating nearly every baseball team that it faced.
The team, founded in 1926 by Jefferson Edwards, was known for its flashy play. Kenny Edwards was the pitcher for the team and the squad would be the unofficial ambassadors for Amber Valley throughout the 1930s. The team would travel across northern Alberta to play white teams. At the time in the southern United States, black teams could only play against other black teams.
The baseball team drew big crowds wherever they went and had an intense rivalry with a team from Lac La Biche.
Syd Alexander, a white settler from Boyle, would say of the team.
“The all-time favourite team to watch was the Amber Valley ball team. They were also so enthusiastic and demonstrated fine sportsmanship.”
As the 1930s progressed, and into the 1950s, the population of the community began to decline as more people moved to different areas of the province and into the cities. There were still various improvements though. In 1946, Keyes School was added onto the new school, to form a two-room school.
In 1953, a new interdenominational church was built and Obadiah Bowen was the pastor at the church, which was built on land he donated near his home.
By 1968, the post office had closed and the community would progress to the point of being a ghost town. The school would be demolished but a replica would be built and currently sits at the Canadian Museum of History.
In the 1970s, Operation We Care would be started and a new community centre would be built to still provide a place for residents of the area to meet and talk.
While the community of Amber Valley no longer exists, the settlers and their descendants have improved Canada in many different ways.
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, CBC, National Post, Canadian Encyclopedia, At The Plate, Canada’s Historic Places, Oklahoma Historical Society, Forest, Furrows and Faith, Place Names Of Alberta and People’s of Alberta.