My Home Is Over Jordan – southern Alberta’s Black Pioneers
Deep river - my home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord
I want to cross over into camp ground.
- from a song the people used to sing
While I have never been blind to its faults, I have a deep love for my home city. For that reason, I’ve authored the piece that follows with a heavy heart. I expect that most who read it will feel the same. It’s a cliche to say that racism is a poison, but it’s true, and writing this article has been a little like drinking poison every day. I wish Canada had been the Home Over Jordan the people were looking for. But I can’t change the past, I can only present what I know of it here.
I grew up inside a history that had no official status and a community that had no geographical place. My people were worthy, long-established residents of the city and province we called home, but our story was casually and precariously preserved - kept alive more by word of mouth amongst ourselves than by any canonical record or acknowledgment of our presence. According to the education I received in school, Black Calgary’s history did not exist.
In recent years, John Ware has been designated the textbook representative of Calgary’s Black history. That he was a former slave who came to the region now known as Southern Alberta in 1882 on a cattle drive is fairly well known. He was a tall, strong, legendary cowboy who won prizes in the local rodeos that led to the creation of the Stampede, and had a particular gift for taming wild horses. He had a great sense of humour; once when asked if he planned to take up this new mode of transportation known as the bicycle, he replied that he certainly would - as soon as the last horse was dead. He established his own ranch that was one of the most successful in the Brooks area. When his horse fell on top of him, killing him in 1905, he was widely grieved. His funeral at Calgary’s Baptist Church was the largest the city had ever seen. All these things I have learned because they are a matter of public record.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t until my older brother went on a school field trip to the Glenbow Museum and saw his photograph that we learned John Ware was Black. My closest companion in those days, Richard was obsessed with cowboys. We had heard the legendary cowboy’s name, we knew that some called him the “greatest cowboy of all time.” We just never heard that he was Black.
John Ware has since become more than a historical figure to me. His children were elders in my community. When I look at the familiar photographs of pre-1905 southern Alberta I see them through John Ware’s eyes. I look at Calgary’s false-fronted log stores where he would have shopped, like Bannerman’s Flour and Feed and I.G. Baker and Company where he first met his wife, Mildred; the Sandstone structures like Knox Presbyterian Church, the Alberta Hotel and the Bank of Montreal, that were erected in response to the terrible fire of 1886, and I imagine John Ware riding by in his wagon. He would have seen cows ambling by the bank, horses tethered to posts in front of the stores, and would have been intent on wrapping up his business as quickly as possible. He hated Calgary, where a Black man who may or may not have been guilty was the first person to be hung for murder, where unlooked-for trouble, racist police, and drunken, fight-picking cowboys abounded. To Calgarians he was known as “Nigger John.” The myth that he accepted the name, to his face, as a term of affection persists to this day. In 1960, after decades of enduring several landmarks in the Brooks area being named “Nigger John,” two of his children, Bob and Nettie, wrote letters, cajoled and finally worked the media in order to remove the offending word from the titles of the places named in his honour. “No one called my father ‘Nigger John’,” said Nettie. “Not to his face. The only time I saw someone do it was in Calgary - and that man ended up in hospital. But Father paid his bill.”
It is also a myth that John Ware and his wife’s family, the Lewis’s, were the only Black people in the region in the 1800s. Many less famous Black men and women lived in the territory during and prior to John Ware’s time. Black fur traders, one by the name of Henry Mills, were present in the mid-1800s. There was a whiskey runner named William Bond. Daniel and Charlotte Lewis came to the area in 1889 with their large family, and after first (unsuccessfully) trying their hand at ranching near Shepard, they moved to Calgary so that Daniel could return to carpentry, which had been his trade in Toronto. He specialized in building fancy staircases in Calgary’s upscale homes, while Charlotte took in laundry to add to the family’s income. Their oldest daughter, Mildred, married John Ware in Calgary in 1892. One of their younger daughters, Mary, met and married a Black cook by the name of William Herbert Darby, who worked for the hotel in Vulcan circa 1900, then after Darby’s death married Sam Carruthers and moved to Amber Valley.
At around the same time, in the southwest corner of Alberta, there was a well-known NWMP translator named Dave Mills, whose mother was Blood and whose father was the previously mentioned fur trader, Henry Mills. The younger Mills married Holy Rabbit Woman, and many of their descendants live on the Blood reserve near Cardston today.
Also in the late 1800s, a Black man named Charlie Dyson operated a blacksmithing business in Pincher Creek. Later, he and his wife Eliza homesteaded near Grasse Butte. Another Black Pincher Creek resident, an adventurous young cowboy by the name of Billy “The Kid” Welsh (or Welch), drowned in a Pincher Creek flood in 1902 after a night of drinking, while trying to guide a friend to safety.
An even earlier Black resident of Pincher Creek was a woman named Annie Saunders, who had previously worked as a nanny and housekeeper for the Colonel James and Mrs. Mary Macleod family. After leaving the employ of the Macleods, Annie, who was known around town as “Old Auntie,” ensconced herself across from the skating pond; running a laundry service, a restaurant, and a boarding home for children. She played an active part in Pincher Creek life, appearing frequently in the Macleod Gazette after hosting choirs, the drama club, various parties and several visiting dignitaries at her restaurant. She also apparently liked to amuse people - including the visiting Marquis of Lorne - by informing them that she had been the first White woman to live in Pincher Creek.
The Canada census of 1901 lists two Black men named George and Louie Robinson who worked as a jockey and stable boy respectively, in the service of John Mclaughlin of High River. The same census found George Williams working as a shoemaker and photographer in Innisfail. There was also a Black cowboy named Lige Abel who worked for the Waldron ranch north of Lundbreck, and another by the name of Green Walters, a ranching cook known for his singing. A Black woman named Flora Wolfe lived as the common-law wife of British nobleman De Laval Beresford on a ranch not far from John Ware’s Brooks property. Beresford and Wolfe had come north looking for greater acceptance of their relationship than they had experienced in Mexico. Tom Rengald was a valued cowhand on the Chipman Ranch west of Calgary, Felix Luttrell rode for Little Bow, and Jim Whitford worked on ranches around Lethbridge for years until he was killed by lightning in 1908. The 1901 census counted 27 as the total number of Blacks in the entire region that would eventually become Alberta, a figure that may have been too low, as my research into the time period has uncovered Blacks in excess of that number just in the southernmost regions of Alberta. For example, the census of that year and other sources make reference to 6 Black residents of Medicine Hat alone.
In the years immediately following John Ware’s death, two things happened that brought many more people of African descent to Alberta. The first was the merging of the Indian and Western Territories to create the state of Oklahoma, USA. The second was the plea from the Canadian government for hardy American farmers to settle the northern regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan. That the two events happened at around the same time in the early years of the twentieth century, seemed to many Black Americans to be a divine signal directing them northward.
My maternal great grandparents had moved away from other southern states in pursuit of the relatively generous freedoms available to Blacks in the Indian Territory. They lost those freedoms when Oklahoma became a state. Whites who had pressed hard for the establishment of Oklahoma made it their first priority to attack the Blacks who had settled there, through politics and through violence. In his book “Deemed Unsuitable,” Bruce Shepard quotes prominent Oklahoma citizen Roy Stafford, writing in the “Oklahoman.”
The law is [as] powerless to curb the debased, ignorant and brutal negro [sic] as it is to restrain vicious animals that attack men. Does not this alone explain the hangings, burnings and horrible forms of mob violence visited upon those of the black [sic] race who shatter the law?
Lynchings frequently followed such tirades, which dominated newspaper editorials and election platforms of the time. Numerous towns saw the burning and dynamiting of Black homes and beatings of Black citizens. A racist mob descended on the town of Wairuka and gave its Black citizens twenty-four hours to leave. Politicians won seats by promising to introduce segregation in all aspects of public life, in elections where Blacks were denied participation through various and illegal means.
My forebears - the Glovers and the Smiths, were spiritual people who believed God had a place for them. Like hundreds of their Black neighbours, they had proven themselves willing to pull up stakes in the past, so when the Canadian government began placing ads in southern newspapers for farmers to come north and settle the wilder regions of Alberta and Saskatchewan, they were willing to move again. They held romantic notions of Canada, the legendary last stop on the Underground Railroad, which had been reinforced throughout their lives by the code names for Canada that had been passed down through spiritual songs. Canada’s secret names were Canaan, Heaven, the other side of Jordan. Along with between one and two thousand friends, neighbours and acquaintances, my great grandparents thought they were setting out for the Promised Land.
Small numbers of these pioneers stopped in rural southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, or in the cities. The vast majority chose isolated locations much further north.
The communities formed by these settlers 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, sod huts, 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 struggled to clear their land and endured day-long walks or wagon rides through muskeg to buy supplies.
Far worse than a challenging landscape and climate, though, was the immediate realization that their welcome was not what they’d hoped for. A sampling of newspaper headlines concerning their arrival include “Negroes Not Wanted in Alberta,” “Canada Will Bar The Negro Out,” “We Want No Dark Spots in Alberta,” and “Colored Question Up in The House - Members Express Some Alarm Lest Many Should Come to Canada.” Numerous petitions protesting their presence were also circulated. Both the Calgary and Edmonton Boards of Trade drafted resolutions demanding that Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier enact legislation to bar Blacks from entering Western Canada. The secretary of the Edmonton Board of Trade claimed that “ninety percent of the citizens who have been asked to sign the petitions against the negro [sic] immigration have complied without hesitation...” Several downtown Edmonton offices, including those of the Merchants Bank, the Windsor and King Edward Hotels and the Board of Trade rooms displayed the petition. The Edmonton Trades and Labour Council also passed a resolution, which read, in part “it was amply proven that an unlimited influx of negroes [sic] into the province would invariably lower the standard of living.” Dr. Ella Synge, a spokesperson for a women’s group, said, “the finger of fate [is] pointing to lynch law which will be the ultimate result, as sure as we allow such people to settle among us.” Laurier responded to his western constituency by drafting the following Order-in-Council on August 12th, 1911:
From a period of one year from and after the date hereof the landing in Canada shall be and the same is prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”
Owing to fears that anti-Black legislation would alienate Black voters in the east, the order-in-council was ultimately rescinded. Instead, the Canadian government hired Black preachers to travel throughout the south to warn Blacks not to come to Canada. This strategy proved to be effective, and the wave of Black immigration trickled off around 1912. The northern pioneers chose to stick together, work their land and keep their heads down. Survival for them depended more on how hard they were willing to work than on the good graces of their surrounding communities. Their counterparts who chose to settle in the cities of Edmonton and Calgary fared much worse. They were dependent on the established White community for every aspect of their survival, and hostility was a daily part of their lives. Employee unions demanded that only White labour be used and city newspapers frequently reported incidents of Blacks being denied service in hotels and restaurants. Other visible racial groups were experiencing similar treatment. Calgary’s famous hospitality did not extend to brown-skinned people.
Calgary began to thrive in the 1920s. Industries of all kinds flourished, Calgarians began to prosper, and as they did so, theatres and leisure facilities abounded. Calgary benefited from increased train travel in Canada, and numerous hotels and restaurants opened to provide lodging and food for the travellers.
Those positive changes had little impact on the Black community. Restaurants, hotels, theatres, leisure facilities and industry continued to limit Black participation. Canadians borrowed from American stereotypes in their dealings with Black women, but even more so with Black men. Calgary’s newspapers of the day and the Rotary Club frequently featured cartoon depictions and minstrel portrayals of shuffling, hapless Black males, and William Aberhart delighted in sharing “Negro” jokes on his broadcasts. The belief that Black men were inherently dangerous to White women proliferated after the arrest of an Edmonton Black man for an assault on a 15 year old girl made headlines for a week in many prairie newspapers. Calgary’s two major dailies, as well as the Lethbridge Daily News all took a “we told you so” stance, and called for careful monitoring of Blacks, expulsion, and a slam-the-door immigration policy. Nine days after the first reports of the incident, it was revealed that the girl had, in fact, not been the victim of any crime. Having lost an expensive ring belonging to her mother, she had staged a robbery in her home and invented a story for her parents and the police that a Black man had been responsible. Employment stereotypes also abounded - Black men shone shoes on many Calgary street corners. Other Black men were forced to accept low, menial labour; some of the women were able to find work as domestics or cooks.
Black men who arrived in Calgary from the east as porters on the railroads, often denied service in the hotels and restaurants, soon enough began to figure out where they could go. They were welcomed by the Chinese proprietors of a few cafes in particular in the 20s and 30s - the Crystal Cafe and the Canadian Cafe, and the White owner of another - the Palace Cafe. The early Calgary pioneers loved to reminisce about Hop Wo, who owned one of the cafes, and who fed many a hungry porter with recipes he adapted to their tastes. “We called him our brother,” said Dick Bellamy. (People in my community continue to be extremely fond of Chinese food. Next to our own versions of soul food, Chinese food remains the meal of choice at many large gatherings.) Bellamy also used to delight in telling the story of how Mrs. Moulds, who owned the Palace, tore a strip off of two visiting Texans in 1932, who demanded to know why he (Bellamy) was allowed to eat in her establishment. “I’ll throw you out of here before I ever ask him to leave,” she told them. Black people also tried to respond to the needs of their own community by opening barber shops and rooming houses, but establishments of this kind met with tremendous resistance by the White community.
City council records and newspaper accounts throughout the early decades of a Black presence in Calgary demonstrate that Blacks resisted and protested against racism, sometimes meeting with success and sometimes not. As early as 1910, an organization called the “Coloured People’s Protective Association,” existed in Calgary. Evidence that the organization was able to attract more than 150 Black residents of southern Alberta to a ball it held in October of 1910, supports the supposition that census estimates of Black residence in the area may have been low. An international organization called the “Universal Negro Improvement Association” also had a substantial Alberta membership. In March of 1911, a Black woman wrote a letter to the mayor of Calgary objecting to statements reported in the newspapers about “driving all Negroes out of Calgary,” attributed to Calgary’s chief of police. Acknowledging that there may have been bad eggs among them, she took exception to the many being punished for the actions of the few. In 1914 a Black man named Charles Daniels brought charges against the owners of the Sherman Grand for refusing him admission to the theatre. He won his suit by default when no one from the firm of Lougheed and Bennett appeared in court to defend the case. In December of 1916, a group of Black citizens who objected to the advertising and showing of the films “Birth of A Nation” and “The Nigger” at the Bijou Theatre wrote to the mayor of Calgary, outlining their concerns. In his reply, Mayor Costello stated that although he was not able to persuade the theatre owners to cancel the run of the latter picture, they had agreed to make some changes to the advertising displayed in the newspapers and outside the theatre.
Disputes between police, the courts and operators of rooming facilities for Black porters were common. In 1911 Harry and Bertha Palmer were referred to in newspaper headlines as “evildoers” and were both sentenced to six months hard labour, having been found guilty of operating a “disorderly house,” on Second Avenue. Interrupting a vigorous defence of their right to provide accommodations to porters by their counsel, F.E. Eaton, Magistrate Sanders stated, “You are wasting my time, Mr. Eaton. I am satisfied with the evidence I have before me that the place is a disorderly house.”
The issue of porter hangouts rose again in 1920, when a group of White residents of Victoria Park hired a lawyer to represent their concerns to city council about Blacks in their neighbourhood. According to the Calgary Daily Herald, Mayor R.C.Marshall invited the White citizens to form a sub-committee to meet face to face with a sub-committee of the Black citizens. The White citizens claimed that “aside from the general undesirability of colored [sic] residents in groups in a white [sic] residential section, the actions of some of the colored persons who have moved in make them undesirable among members of their own race...that in one instance what was termed a boarding house was virtually a club or gathering place for boarders and other colored men; that the house included a pool room fifty feet long and a bar where soft drinks were sold...” It would seem that the mayor was also dealing with other complaints of this kind. In a directive dated April 27th 1920, with the heading “Re Negroes,” the following resolution was adopted:
“That petitions and communications re Negroes resident in certain sections of the City be referred to the Mayor & Commissioners for settlement, and if necessary, report back to Council.”
Ultimately, 472 inhabitants of Victoria Park signed a petition to city council that read: “We request that they be restrained from purchasing any property in the said district and any who may now be residing there will be compelled to move into some other locality.”
City Council wrote to 16 other Canadian cities seeking a precedent for officially segregating or barring Blacks from living in those cities. After ascertaining that no precedent existed, council refused the petitioners’ request. Informally, the mayor suggested to the Black citizens that one function of their committee should be to “persuade other colored [sic] people not to come into the district,” which they agreed to do, although insisting that they could not be “held responsible for the actions of strangers coming in.” He also suggested to the White petitioners that they pursue real estate agents who facilitated the transfer of property to Blacks in their area, stating “one of the best methods of preventing like trouble in the future was to get after real estate men who made such transfers under subterfuge, and that an aroused public opinion on such actions would accomplish more than any move the city authorities could make.”
These kinds of formal attempts to legalize bigotry against Blacks were sporadic, but informal discrimination and negative stereotyping continued to be widespread throughout the ensuing decades. In addition to encountering resistance in housing and employment, Blacks found that they were barred from many nightclubs, bars, swimming pools and skating rinks. In 1948 the proprietor of a Calgary swimming pool was questioned by a reporter about keeping Blacks out of his facility. He replied: “That has always been the rule here...If too many Negroes come to swim, no one else would want to use the pool and we would go out of business.” He went on to say the same rule applied to the Chinese and Japanese.
Black Calgary began to make its own spaces. Black businesses like the Chicken Inn, owned by Bob Melton and Florence Carter, and the Chicken Fry, owned by Louella and Dick Bellamy cropped up. Both the Inn and the Fry were raucous party joints, and although Black patrons formed a core clientele, the restaurants attracted large numbers of White customers as well. A strong Black church was established in Calgary in 1947 by Andrew Risby, a son of early pioneers who had settled at Campsie and who married my mother’s older sister Edith. Holding services at first in the railroad mission, occasionally at Utopia Hall and finally at the Standard Church of America in Inglewood, the church provided a meeting place and support network for the Black people who didn’t relish the atmosphere at the Inn and the Fry, preferring to submerge their sorrows in the scriptures. Andrew Risby also provided the much needed service of marrying and burying. Prior to his arrival, weddings and especially funerals caused panic in a community that was both without a spiritual rudder and uncertain of who it could turn to when a clergyman was needed. Utopia Hall also served as a neutral space, for meetings where the church-going and secular Black factions needed common ground. Black events were held there so frequently that it became known in the community as “the hall” and eventually as “the hole,” because, according to my Aunt Pearl, that’s what it was.
During the 1940s Blacks in Calgary began to organize, and groups like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters morphed into the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Well-known Black American labour activist A. Philip Randolph and Ontario activist Stanley Grizzle both spent time in Calgary working with influential Black citizens like Dick Bellamy, P.T. Clay, and later, Roy Williams, Melvin Crump, Burt Proctor and Teddy King, to combat discrimination and try to present a more accurate representation of the character of the community. This unified voice found important allies in the White community, including city councillors, reporters, members of the CCF, (forerunner of the NDP) members of B’nai B’rith, and Mayor J.C. Watson. Gradual progress was made, specifically against racial discrimination by proprietors of restaurants and hotels.
The traditional avenues for Black success in North America - sports and music - were more open to Black strivers in Calgary as well. The high profile of Black athletes like Sugarfoot Anderson, who were also respected in the White community, began to act as a bridge between the communities in the 40s and 50s. Black athletes and entertainers were seen to bring reflected glory on Alberta. But making a living as an athlete or entertainer was difficult, and by no means did it provide protection from racism. Anderson’s wife, Virnetta, who later became an alderman, was surprised and appalled in the 1940s by the way some Calgarians performed an attitude about-face after learning she was married to Sugarfoot.
The worst and most widely-publicized incident of hatred toward Blacks in Calgary took place in April of 1940. Soldiers from Currie Barracks sometimes frequented a dance hall owned by a Black musician named Lou Darby, son of the William Herbert Darby that had married into John Ware’s family at the turn of the century. An argument between a White soldier whose girlfriend had shown interest in Darby’s brother, a member of his orchestra, led to a fistfight. The private left the premises to round up a group of 200 of his fellow soldiers, who then stormed Lou Darby’s residence at 133, 2nd Avenue, East. Egged on by a large crowd of civilian onlookers, shouting that they were going to “bust up the nigger joints” and then go down to “Harlem” (8th Ave. and 4th St. East, where most of the Black people lived) to “run out the niggers,” the mob destroyed the picket fence, heaved rocks through the windows and finally broke down the door. Inside the house were the terrified Lou Darby, his sister Eva and her husband, a White soldier named Private Thomas Liesk. By the time police arrived, the soldiers were in the process of attacking Liesk and had stripped him of his uniform. The police were able to push their way through the crowd and guide the three inhabitants to safety, then spent the rest of the night corralling the soldiers and marching them back to the barracks.
During the first half of the twentieth century, one of the most insidious aspects of life in Calgary for individual Blacks was being regarded as an undesirable, unsuitable citizen and associated with criminal activity, no matter how upstanding and determined to make a positive contribution you were.
When I read decades-old accounts of Black men and women in conflict with the law and with mainstream Calgary society, I can’t help but filter those accounts through my knowledge of the impact racism had on the lives of those people. While not wanting to make excuses for those who were in fact guilty of destructive living, I often recall a file I came across while doing research for a project at the Provincial Archives in Edmonton a couple of years ago. The case concerned a criminal assault committed by a Black resident of the community of Campsie, circa 1924. The file detailed how the man had assaulted and injured the community’s male teacher, in what it characterized as an unprovoked attack. Witnesses gave testimony on behalf of the teacher, and several important White town officials decried the lawless, vigilante spirit of the “Negroes” and their lack of desirability as neighbours. I recognized the name of the defendant from a description of that same event I had heard only weeks before from my uncle. I read every page of the file, looking in vain for some recorded acknowledgment of the behaviour of the teacher that had led to the assault. My uncle, Andrew Risby, the revered and respected pastor of the Standard Church in Calgary, was a young boy growing up in Campsie at the time the incident took place. The teacher was an unrepentant, outspoken racist, who found ways to refuse admittance of Black children to the schoolhouse. Although Black residents protested through what they thought were the proper official channels, nothing changed. Frustration mounted, and when the teacher became verbally abusive toward the mother of one of the children, her husband punched him. The assault had taken place, but the greater crime remained unreported.
There is no denying there were Black people in Calgary who did resort to crime. There was a divide between those who “lived right” and those who didn’t. I used to listen to the elders describe people in our community who engaged in illegal activity in one of two ways. The first, and worst, in the eyes of those who lived right, were described as having chosen “the sporting life,” being “bad actors,” or “fools.” The way Uncle Andrew always framed it was “they let the devil take hold.” People who fell into that category were generally regarded as having made bad choices when they could have, and should have, done otherwise. Then there was another, more sympathetic categorization. These were people who were driven to do things they normally wouldn’t, by a lack of other available options. They lost hope, or grew tired and bitter, or their kids were going hungry. Like Ray Charles sang in the song, “Now I am no thief, but a man can go wrong when he’s busted...” The people who lived right didn’t like to see anyone of their community walk down the path of ruin, whatever the reason. Firstly, they cared about the people, or at least knew someone in that person’s family to care about. Secondly, it didn’t matter if there were five hundred Black people who lived right for every one who didn’t. Step out of line and every Black man, woman and child in the city would pay. Whatever the circumstances, whether they were no good or just desperate, the numbers who stepped over that line were small. Most of the people I knew would take any kind of job and work diligently at it, suffer, even go hungry, to stay on the “side of right.” Because the racism they faced in Canada didn’t usually amount to actual loss of life, a consequence they had regularly faced in the US, they were determined that prejudice would not push them off the path they had chosen to walk. Time and again, certain meager-hearted Canadians would attempt to enact legislation against them; time and again those attempts failed. From this, they drew encouragement.
When railroad travel to western Canada began to boom in the late 1920s, local Black men were hired in large numbers to work as porters, beginning a tradition of employment that lasted more than fifty years. Attracted by the security of railroad jobs, many families from the northern Black settlements moved to the cities as well. Every family I knew who had roots in the Black pioneering community had fathers, brothers or uncles who worked as porters at one time or another. John Ware’s sons, Bob and Arthur, both worked for the railroads. Through today’s eyes, it’s difficult to see why the job was prized. It took the men away from home for long stretches. It was hard work - porters were often on their feet from Vancouver to Winnipeg. The men were sometimes treated with disdain or contempt by the clientele whose beds they were making and meals they were serving. No porter ever became wealthy, although the living it afforded was superior to what pinning chickens or shining shoes could provide. But up to the early 70s, Black families respected their porters. Porters wore clean shirts. They travelled, bringing back stories and an air of sophistication that few would otherwise have been able to afford. They were part of a brotherhood that sustained our community. Somewhere between the 60s and the 70s, working on the road lost its prestige. There was a time of overlap between the days when portering was esteemed and the era when young Blacks were refusing to settle for service employment. They were able to afford to choose education and were taking advantage of doors that had been opened for them by people whose work they no longer honoured.
I was born in 1956, about halfway through what has now been the first hundred years of an actual Black presence in Southern Alberta. The shift between the old and the new has taken place in my lifetime. I remember being a curiosity on a daily basis. To quote from the memoirs of Peggy Brown, (nee Bowen) who grew up in Amber Valley but has lived in Calgary for 50 years, “I didn’t have a problem with the colour of my skin - other people did.” I recall praying that no one would call my brothers and sister and me names at the playground. I was around for sickening minstrel shows and racist advertising. I was both worried and proud when people from my community and family would face down bigots. I feared that the terrible things I heard of happening to Black people in the US would happen here, to people I knew.
But there was more to growing up Black in Calgary than racism. We didn’t cower in our homes. There were picnics at Bowness Park or the Zoo, where we would commandeer at least a dozen tables that would be laid out with food prepared by the best down-home cooks in the city. There were Christmas concerts and Watch Night services at church on New Year’s Eve. There was a great deal of singing. There were gentle brown grandfathers who smelled like cinnamon, and spoke in a back-country, lyrical Canadian/American hybrid vernacular. There were bossy, confident Black women wearing aprons, women of extraordinary strength who somehow managed to create a sense of place and peace, raising children to love themselves in a world that didn’t love them. There were many children for us to tear around with, whose faces betrayed that they were Lawsons, or Saunders’, or Lipscombes or Mayes’, or Bowens, or Browns or Williams’or Hayes’ or Proctors or Sneeds... There were cranky, sharp-tongued people, always outnumbered by those who practiced doubled-over, staggering-across-the-room, cackling laughter. My favourite outings were the ones to Banff. We travelled in a caravan of cars, Uncle Andrew always in the lead. Somehow, without ever having said a word about the gapes our large group of brown faces drew, he managed to communicate to us, the children, that we didn’t need to concern ourselves with people who stared at us like we didn’t belong. Banff, all of Alberta, belonged to us. We could see that by the way he strode around, tall and fearless. We learned to claim our place.
At around the same time that the northern communities started to lose their young people to Calgary and Edmonton, Caribbean immigrants also began to make their way to the two cities. When the vestiges of racist immigration policies were taken off the books in Canada in the late 60s, more people of African descent arrived in Southern Alberta. Human Rights legislation was introduced in Alberta in 1966. Trudeau’s vision of Canada reflected a shift in societal attitudes, away from tacit acceptance of discrimination. The American Civil Rights movement and other world fronts raised awareness of racism in our own country. Local newspaper columnists like Eva Reid and Suzanne Zwarun, and later, Brian Brennan and David Bly began to report regularly on the positive contributions of Black citizens like Vi King, who in 1954 became the first Black female law graduate in Canada and the second woman to be admitted to the bar in Calgary. Floyd Sneed’s exploits as the drummer for one of the seventies seminal bands “Three Dog Night” and Oliver Bowen’s work as the chief engineer for Calgary’s LRT also received recognition.
Despite these positive signs, the need to work for respect and fairness was ongoing. In the 1960s, Black organizations sought support from city hall to have racist caricatures removed from public advertising on city streets, and to monitor continued discriminatory practices in the workforce. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, myriad White supremacist organizations were active in Alberta, receiving the most attention for a cross-burning in Provost in 1990. In the early 80s, a map showing parts of southern Alberta incorporated into a planned “Whites Only” zone surfaced during (former Calgary Stampeder Football Team Owner) Larry Ryckman’s research for his film, “The Aryan Nation.” At around the same time a Nigerian man was falsely accused of drunkenness and pimping, and was severely beaten by Calgary police. In response to these alarming developments, the AAACP was briefly revived in the early 80s, and my sister Noel and I signed on as fundraising chair and newsletter editor respectively, our family having had our own experiences with stereotyping and racial discrimination. Noel and I, and a Black female friend of ours who was a geologist working for a downtown oil company, had been experiencing frequent embarrasing harrassment from White men who assumed we were prostitutes. Between the three of us we hit on the idea of carrying briefcases whenever we were downtown, a plan which reduced, but did not eliminate, the provocation. At around the same time, our brother Richard was an outstanding student and basketball player for the University of Calgary Dinosaurs. A Calgary food company offered employment to every member of the U of C and Mount Royal College basketball teams; however, Richard and the sole Black player on Mount Royal’s team were refused. Thinking it was an oversight, Richard applied a second time, but was informed all positions had been filled. Two days later, when another of his White teammates found employment with the company, there could be no mistaking the firm’s racist hiring policy. One of Richard’s teammates quit his job with the company in disgust over their actions.
In 2004, in the months leading up to the writing of this article, bar and nightclub owners in Calgary have made headlines for attempting to prevent Black men and men from other identifiable groups from frequenting their premises. Evidence of racism in other aspects of public life, including the work force and in local professional sports, have also made headlines.
But Calgary is a more cosmopolitan city than it used to be. When incidents of racism are publicized, there is often an outcry, and not just from people who are on the receiving end of unjust treatment. Calgary is a complex place and sometimes it is impossible for people on the outside to see the layers. Although from the city’s beginnings, there have been people working to create a breeding ground for intolerance here, those people have created an equal and opposite reaction. Just as Dick Bellamy had Mrs. Moulds to send the Texans packing from her restaurant and my brother Richard had the teammate who refused to work for bigots, I have had friends willing to stand up. The mythical, hope-of-the-world Canadians really do exist and one of the best ways to find them is to be Black.
In recent years, Black Calgarians have chosen to honour our history and counter racism by celebrating the achievements of Alberta’s Black doctors, scholars, artists, peace officers, athletes, entrepreneurs, authors, educators, scientists and philanthropists through organizations like the Black Achievement Awards Society of Alberta, the Black Pioneers Descendants Society and through various activities during Black History Month in February of each year.
Knowing what I now know about the hardships my ancestors and their people faced, both before coming to Canada and after they arrived, I’m amazed when I recall the lack of bitterness I heard in their voices, the sweetness of their beings. They remained optimistic and convinced that God had guided their feet to this “Promised Land” and that things would work out for the best. Like me, many of them found good friends among their White neighbours and didn’t hold the treatment they received in their day-to-day lives against humanity in general. Most of the pioneers, including my ancestors, became fiercely loyal Canadians.
Our stories have started to creep into books, into courses taught at universities and onto websites, for those who are interested enough to seek them out. Our history remains absent from Alberta’s school curriculum and from the minds of the majority of people. It’s November 9th, 2004. I’m sitting here writing, you’re sitting there reading. Let’s see what the next hundred years brings.