US Race Relations
As with any immigration history, there are a number of political, economic, and social factors that contributed to the influx of Blacks from the United States at the turn of the 20th century. An understanding of US race relations is crucial when exploring the history of Alberta’s Black pioneers.
The US Civil Rights Act of 1875 stated that “all persons, regardless of race or color, should be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of public conveyances and other places of public amusement.” Not surprisingly, Whites of the southern United States viewed the Act with utter contempt. Moreover, with the removal of federal troops marking the end of the Reconstruction Era, local state and municipal authorities were essentially free to govern race relations according to their own agenda. Despite the fact that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 clearly stated that all Black Americans were to receive impartial treatment and access to all public amenities, this was not the case. In fact, by 1883, the Supreme Court overruled the Act, claiming that it lacked the constitutional authority to outlaw racial discrimination expressed by private individuals, businesses, or organizations. Essentially, the government would no longer intervene to protect the civil rights of Black Americans.
In all public spheres of life, segregation became an immensely popular tool to separate White and Black communities. The landmark court decision of 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson, served to reinforce segregation between the races. Emphasizing the policy of “separate but equal,” Plessy v. Ferguson reaffirmed initiatives to exclude Black Americans from all public facilities.
Local and state authorities enacted measures, known as the Jim Crow Laws, to distance themselves from the Black community. From public transportation to drinking fountains, Black Americans were segregated from the White community and often had to use inferior facilities. For example, Black Americans could only sit at the rear of buses and in specific sections of trains designated for Blacks or coloured persons; they were forced to use different water fountains and could watch movies only from the back of the theatre.
Politically, Blacks' voting privileges were suppressed by state authorities who conjured up strange and archaic rules to disenfranchise the Black community. Some states, for instance, stipulated that in order to vote, one must be literate, thus preventing a considerable portion of the Black community from voting.
State officials passed strict legislation, known as the Grandfather Clause, that removed the possibility of Black Americans' influencing government policy through voting. The Grandfather Clause, by definition, is an exception that allows an old rule to apply to existing scenarios. In this case, the Grandfather Clause stipulated that Black Americans did not meet specific eligibility requirements that would allow them to vote. This reversed Black Americans' voting rights to those of the Antebellum period.
For example, Oklahoma legislation clearly stated that “No person shall be registered as an elector of this state…Unless he be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma.” Most historians agree that the Jim Crow Laws, combined with the Grandfather Clause, were key factors in spurring much of the interest in immigrating to Canada.
When the state of Oklahoma was formed in 1907, its Black population comprised roughly 8 percent of the total population. Although small in number, Oklahoma Blacks felt the same discrimination as other Blacks living in various southern states. Authorities in Oklahoma established procedures to disenfranchise all Black Americans. Meanwhile, the Ku Klux Klan increased its presence, making life for Oklahoma’s Black community extremely difficult. Acts of violence, including beatings and lynchings, were extended towards the Black community.
Upon arriving in the newly formed state of Oklahoma, many Black Americans soon realized that another trip, one of considerable length, was imminent in order to escape the racism and discrimination prevalent in the American South. Although there were efforts to organize a return to Africa, specifically to Liberia, other Blacks were convinced this was not necessary as true freedom and equality existed in Canada. In fact, many Black Americans held romantic notions of Canada; it was the last stop on the Underground Railway, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to free states and even as far north as Canada. For many Black Americans willing to make the journey, the trip meant escape from a life of oppression and setting out for the Promised Land.