African-American Immigration to Alberta
Over the years, drawn by the promise of a better life, African-Americans have immigrated to Canada. They left the United States to escape lives as slaves, to get away from racist attitudes and laws, or to pursue the dream of owning their own farm. African-American immigrants have come to Canada in a series of waves, one of which occurred during the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. These immigrants were promised farmland in return for abandoning their American masters. Many of the first African-American immigrants found their way to Ontario, Nova Scotia, and even British Columbia.
African-American settlers, mostly from Oklahoma, began arriving in Alberta in 1908. Over the next three years, around 1,000 African-Americans left Oklahoma to escape the racism they encountered there and arrived in Alberta to farm and to begin new lives.
White farmers in Oklahoma did not want black Americans for neighbours. In 1907, white farmers passed segregation legislation which barred black Americans from public places such as theatres and street cars. In addition, whites tried to disenfranchise African-Americans. When the Segregation Act came into effect in 1908, entire families of African-Americans decided to move.
Many black families headed north to Alberta because of advertisements placed in American newspapers by the Canadian government. At that time, the Canadian government was encouraging American farmers to establish farms on the prairies. For a mere ten dollars, a new farmer would be given title to a quarter section of land (160 acres). The provision, however, was that the land be cleared and worked for three years and that the farmer plant and erect a house on his new parcel of land. These advertisements were reprinted in newspapers with a black American readership. When the new racist laws came into effect, African-American farmers decided to move.
The farmers settled in towns such as Wildwood and Amber Valley, near Athabasca. Although the African-Americans had moved north to get away from racist opinions and laws, they discovered that similar notions existed in Canada. Additional African-American immigrants were prevented from reaching Alberta: by imposing strict medical examinations or by declaring African-American people unfit for the Canadian climate, business groups and the provincial government turned away potential immigrants. Some city councils, including Edmonton’s, passed resolutions banning African-American people from their jurisdiction. As a result of these actions, the African-American population of Alberta stalled in 1911.
African-American families settled into communities, built schools and churches, and began to farm the land. The settlement at Amber Valley was the most successful, surviving through the Great Depression and attaining a mark of permanence with the construction of a post office. However, many African-American people from other communities, especially the younger generation, left the homesteads for larger centres such as Edmonton. In 2001, there were only 30 African-American people living in the Athabasca region.
In the 1950s, several African-American American athletes such as Johnny Bright and Rollie Miles moved to Edmonton to play football. Both had Hall of Fame careers with the Edmonton Eskimos.
CKUA Heritage Trails #81 with host Cheryl Croucher. Hear about the first black settlement in Alberta and learn about Jefferson Davis Edwards, one of its most important members. Then discover how Amber Valley got its name. Historian Merrily Aubrey explains the importance of Amber Valley as a centre of black settlement in Alberta. (Running Time: 2:16)
Mensah, Joseph. Black Canadians: History, Experiences, Social Conditions. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2002.
Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.
Bruce Shepard, "North to the Promised Land: African-American Migration to the Canadian Plains,"