Black Immigration Into The Prairies

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Since before Canada was ever a country, there has been Black immigration to it. From the individuals who were forced to work as slaves in Upper and Lower Canada, to the Loyalists who settled in places like Nova Scotia, those who came to Canada and their descendants, would shape Canada in many extraordinary ways.

During the War of 1812, about 2,000 Black refugees came to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, while about 800 Black Americans settled on Vancouver Island between 1858 and 1860.

When slaves were fleeing the United States, over 30,000 of them came into Canada over the first half of the 19th century, settling in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

This episode isn’t about all of Black immigration though, but a specific period of immigration, from 1905 to 1912.

It was during that time when the American South was implementing strict Jim Crow laws, lynching was very common, and many Black Americans were looking to get away from America and settle in Canada.

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.

Lynching was 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.

The period of Black immigration into the Canadian Prairies covers those seven years, but between 1909 and 1911, over 1,500 came into the Prairies to set up block settlements in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

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.”

In the Chicago Defender, a letter was published with the headline of Land of No Lynchers, No Snakes and No Jim Crow Cars. The author would write quote:

“This is a fine country where people get equal rights in every business or pursuit. Those that have come are doing well. They stand the cold as well as anyone else.”

Most of the immigrants came out in large groups, sometimes with men migrating first and then bringing their families after they were established.

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, Alberta was 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. Another person who had come was Jefferson Edwards. He would say years later quote:

“It was good land, good for wheat and mixed farming. So, I wanted to investigate it. Also, some colored folks had already taken up a homestead there. I guess we are just like other people. Take a Frenchman, if a Frenchman settles in a place, other Frenchman will settle near him. If a Ukrainian locates in a place, then the Ukrainians move in. I guess that is the way it was with us.”

In March 1910, border agents recorded 36 heads of Black families coming into Alberta and Saskatchewan, showing the growing number of Black families that would be settling in the provinces.

Traveling from Oklahoma involved multiple train trips, with some taking wagons and carts from the United States as they got closer to Canada. For those coming to Amber Valley, the travelers had to build three bridges to cross creeks north of Edmonton. The settlers brought everything they owned, including things that would not be useful. One settler had brought a cotton gin believing he could grow cotton in Alberta. When he realized that this was not possible, the cotton gin became a centerpiece on his dining room table.

When the Amber Valley 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.” 

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. 

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.

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. 

While the community of Amber Valley no longer exists, the settlers and their descendants have improved Canada in many different ways. Oliver Bowen, the grandson of settler Wallace Bowen, would go on to become a noted engineer in Canada who designed the initial Calgary C-Train system that is used to this day. Violet Henry King, another descendant, would become the first Canadian Black female attorney. Floyd Sneed, related to settler Harrison Sneed, would go on to become the drummer for Three Dog Night.

In 1908, a group of 20 Black settlers came up from the United States during a brief period of immigration for African Americans who were fleeing the extreme racism of the American South. Originally, the community was named Junkins. This name was chosen based on an alphabetical system used by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and Junkins was a vice president of a consulting company of engineers for the railroad. In 1910, the first train would arrive in the area. By 1922, Junkins was encouraging new settlers to come to the community. A colonization society was formed to help get more people to arrive.

The name would eventually change as many of its residents found that its name was unattractive and in 1928, the decision was made to change the name. A community contest was held, and the name Wildwood was chosen. This would become the new name of the community the following year. The community is still a thriving one to this day and the descendants of those first Black pioneers have made significant contributions to Canada in the past century.

I’m going to sidetrack here to talk about the interesting thing that Wildwood did in the 1980s to drum up tourism.

Wildwood sits along Chip Lake, and it is within there we learn the story about Dippy, the Chip Lake Monster. This lake monster is a bit more recent than its siblings The Ogopogo and the Loch Ness Monster. In the 1980s, Wildwood wanted to drive up its tourism a bit and they came up with the idea of Dippy the Lake Monster.

Dippy has made it in the news occasionally as well. Don Smith wrote about visiting the area of Wildwood in September 1987 and he would write quote:

“It’s home to Dippy, the Chip Lake Monster. His Chipness was hiding the day we visited.”

At one point, there was a life-sized version of Dippy that sat on the lake but after some locals started shooting at it, the statue was taken off the lake, but the story of Dippy, the relative of the Ogopogo, continues to this day.

In 1990, a municipal copper and nickel token was created to honour Dippy, and you can find some still on eBay.

Dippy has also become the subject of a children’s book called Into the Wilds of Chip Lake, that follows Bucky and Chippy on an adventure as they discover what friendship truly is. You can find a copy of it at the Galloway Station Gift Shop.

Campsie is located about 100 kilometres north of Edmonton and it was here that a block settlement was established by Black Canadian homesteaders from Oklahoma and Texas.

In 1910, 12 Black families came north from Oklahoma to take advantage of the land available in Saskatchewan. Several of the members of the families were former slaves, or descendants of slaves. They would arrive north of Maidstone where they settled and began to work the land. One of the men to arrive was Julius Caesar Lane, who was born a salve in Virginia and was sold as a child to live in Mississippi. In 1912, the homesteaders would build a one-room log church and they named it the Shiloh Baptist Church. This church would become the focal point for the community, with its hand-made benches and pulpit. Nearby, a cemetery would be built and today, 37 graves of the original settlers are still found there. The church and cemetery are now a provincial heritage site.

This Black immigration was not looked on fondly by the federal government

Within the House of Commons, MP William Thoburn rose and spoke, stating the government was letting in too many Black Americans, stating quote:

“To preserve for the sons of Canada, the lands they proposed to give to—”

I won’t repeat the word he used at the end of that sentence.

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. 

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, and his successor Frank Oliver, were 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.”

Oliver would write in March 1910 quote:

“It is true that there is no ban put upon a man by the Immigration Department because of his nationality but it is not the less true in the administration of the work of immigration, there is a preference show, and properly shown, to the people of our own race.”

A black medical doctor from Chicago named G.W. Miller 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. During his speeches to Black Americans, he would record their names, occupations and sizes of their families. He would then write a report detailing if he had dissuaded the families from going to Canada. These reports were then sent to Canada. Before long, word of his speeches spread, and it had the desired effect of preventing immigration. On July 17, 1911, Miller would write quote:

“The Canadian boom is rapidly dying out as the unfavourable reports relative to Canada seem to have spread over the entire state. Everywhere I go people say they have heard of me and of the unfavorable report of Canada. Many want me to locate in their respective towns.”

Noah Butler would write to the Superintendent of Canadian Immigration on Dec. 13, 1910, stating that due to state corruption, racism against African Americans and restricted access to the court system in Oklahoma, he wanted to immigrate to Canada. He would write quote:

“Concerning the colored man’s opportunity in Canada as a citizen, a man’s color don’t hold him back. If I can get a homestead free and be in a country where I can be protected, I would like to come up there and live.”

In response, W.D. Scott, the Superintendent, wrote back quote:

“I do not think it would be in your interests to settle here. Our winter climate would not be found congenial to you. It is considered in this country that coloured people are not a class likely to do well on our free grant lands in the Western Provinces and we are therefore not encouraging the removal of any of your people to this country.”

In March 1910, Bruce Walker, the Commissioner of Immigration in Winnipeg, wrote to W.D. Scott stating that J.S. Crawford, the immigration agent in Kansas City, was giving too many settler certificates to African Americans. He would write, falsely, that those who settled in the Amber Valley area were quote:

“Extremely poor, some of them destitute, have no means to go farming, are huddling together in large numbers, they have very large families, have little or nothing to clothe or maintain themselves with, and are altogether, in my judgement, not such a class of persons as we ought to encourage to enter the country.”

Crawford wrote back stating that if not for him, thousands of African Americans would have migrated into Western Canada.

In the end, Crawford was transferred to New York.

The Department of Immigration would work with the Canadian Pacific Railway to prevent Black immigration as well. The CPR agreed to exclude African Americans from any organized tours of Alberta and Saskatchewan, to stop issuing reduced railroad rates to African Americans, and to report any government agents who encouraged Black Americans to immigrate into Canada.

In an effort to stop the immigration, an Order-in-Council was approved on Aug. 12, 1911, by the cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The order would ban Black persons from entering into Canada for one year. This was done on the claim of quote:

“The Negro race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”

The order never became law because Canada decided it did not want to tarnish relations with the United States or alienate the Black Canadians who were in Canada during an election year. On Oct. 5, 1911, the order was repealed.

While the order would never become law, but it would lay down a clear foundation of policy for the government in its efforts to prevent Black immigration.

Those policies would remain in place until 1962 when they were overturned, with help from Violet King Henry, whose parents, as we will see, 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. It was estimated that 40 per cent of Black immigrants were rejected at the border for medical reasons, typically trumped up by border officials.

A border agent could demand that Black immigrants possess $500 at the time of entry, while at the same time allowing a white immigrant to enter Canada with only $25. There are even claims of border officials receiving a bonus for every Black immigrant they rejected at the border.

In December of 1910, 34 Black immigrants came through the entry port of White Rock, British Columbia and then journeyed to Edmonton. Upon arriving in Edmonton, immigration officials began to investigate how the Black immigrants entered through that port and how they passed the medical exams. When they were told that each migrant family had between $300 and $800, officials were still not happy.

W.D. Scott would write to an official quote:

“If you can discover any reason why any of the 34 from Oklahoma should be deported, take action. If you are suspicious that there are any who would not come up to the physical qualification call in a City Health Officer to examine.”

It was not just the government that was against Black immigration. The Edmonton chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire would petition the government on March 31, 1911, stating quote:

“We view with alarm the continuous and rapid influx of Negro settlers. This immigration will have the immediate effect of discouraging white settlement in the vicinity of the Negro farms and will depreciate the value of all holdings within such areas.”

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 discriminations were 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.”

There were bright stories though, and 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. 

The thousands of Black Canadians who came to Canada during those brief years would have a large impact through their descendants. Some of the communities they established, like Wildwood, still exist to this day.

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 Peoples of Alberta, We Heard Canada Was A Free Country,

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