Alberta’s Early Black Pioneers

Cheryl Foggo

In the early days of the last century, hundreds of names of Black farmers and business people from the US were entered into immigration logs at Emerson, Manitoba. Headed for Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan, the people were coming from the south; mostly Oklahoma, but also from places like Kansas, Texas and Mississippi, because they believed God had called them away from oppression and enslavement to the Promised Land, which was one of their names for Canada. Selling what they couldn’t bring with them, they pulled up stakes and rode the long train, banding together to form the northernmost Black communities that had ever existed in the world.

Two historically coincident circumstances precipitated their arrival. As the new century unfolded, the formerly enslaved moved in large numbers to the Indian and Western Territories where they experienced relative freedom and some basic rights. When the territories were combined and formed into the state called Oklahoma, residents who had pressed hard for the establishment of statehood made it their first priority, through politics and violence, to attack the Blacks who had settled there.

Anti-Black newspaper editorials influenced daily life. Lynchings were frequent. Numerous Oklahoma towns saw the burning and dynamiting of Black homes and beatings of Black citizens. Black properties were seized. Politicians won seats by promising to introduce segregation in all aspects of public life, in elections where Blacks were denied participation through underhanded and illegal measures.

At the same time, the Canadian government began running ads in southern newspapers for farmers to come north and “settle the wild regions” of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Black people had heard of Canada. It was the last stop on the Freedom Train, the Underground Railroad. It was the place their own forebears had sung about in code in their spirituals. Canada’s secret names were Canaan, Heaven, the Other Side of Jordan. Between fifteen hundred and two thousand people responded to the call - they were going to the Promised Land.

The communities formed by these pioneers were in and around Maidstone (Saskatchewan), North Battleford (Saskatchewan), Keystone, (now Breton, Alberta), Campsie (Alberta), Junkins (now Wildwood, Alberta) and the largest and best known, Amber Valley (Alberta). They lived in abandoned railroad boxcars, or tiny log cabins with dirt floors and tar-paper roofs. Some of the pioneers described enduring temperatures of 60 degrees below zero, in shacks where the wind and snow blew through the cracks. They ate moose and pork when they could get it, rabbit and squirrel when they had to. They wrestled rocks, trees and bushes to clear their land and sometimes walked twelve miles through rain-clogged muskeg and bog to buy staples. 

Worst of all, their welcome was not what they’d hoped for.  Petitions were circulated against their presence. Editorials were written in Alberta newspapers, denouncing them as a threat. Legislation to keep them out was discussed in the House of Parliament. This type of activity was discouragingly familiar. Yet most of the pioneers became fiercely loyal Canadians. What they had left behind in the south was so dehumanizing, that hardship in Canada was simply incorporated into the legend. God never promised it would be easy - He only promised the Promised Land. The majority of the people got on with the business of living, and many thrived. 

Out of those pioneers rose lawyers like Violet King, who became the second woman to be admitted to the bar in Calgary, musicians such as Floyd Sneed, the drummer for seventies super-star rock band “Three Dog Night,” psychologists, professional athletes, civic engineers like Oliver Bowen who oversaw the construction of Calgary’s LRT, writers, artists such as Edmonton Journal cartoonist Malcolm Mayes, university administrators, preachers, judges like his honour Lionel Jones, whose father Jesse Jones was a world-class track athlete, theatre practitioners, college instructors, teachers, archaeologists, police officers, entrepreneurs and health professionals.

In the year 2005, along with Alberta’s centennial, the Black pioneer descendants celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of their spirited ancestors.