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Settling in Alberta

Plowing FieldsBlack Americans who made their way to Alberta settled primarily in six locations: Edmonton, Calgary, Amber Valley, Keystone (later named Breton), Junkins (later named Wildwood) and Campsie (near Barrhead). Evidently, the history of Blacks in Alberta can largely be divided into both a rural and urban experience, which will be described in detail in the section entitled Communities.

Upon arriving in Alberta, Black settlers faced several challenges, not the least of which was the non-arable land in northern Alberta. A Dominion Land Survey completed at the time concluded that 45 percent of the land in the area was deemed unsuitable for farming. Swamps, dense forests, and peat moss dotted the landscape. This resulted in farmers' having to complete backbreaking labour which included clearing and draining the land and removing tree stumps. Many of the initial Black settlers lacked the proper farming tools and equipment; as a result, tasks such as clearing the land were completed using homemade tools powered by the strength and will of the individual using them.

Hay HarvestThe Canadian government imposed several requirements to develop and maintain a homestead. Also known as “proving up,” a homesteader was to build a house valued at a minimum of $300, clear and cultivate at least 30 acres (12 hectares) of land, and live there for at least six months of the year for a period of three years. To make homesteading slightly easier, these rules and restrictions were eventually lessened. The greatest challenge lay in completing the required tasks within the allotted three years.

The weather was a difficult adjustment as most Blacks were not accustomed to the long winters, short summers, freezing winds, frigid temperatures, and heavy snowfalls. During the first winter, most families lacked proper attire such as footwear, coats, and mittens.

Houses consisted of small log cabins constructed over several months. While the cabin was being built, family members would sleep in makeshift tents or stay with friends during the particularly cold winter months. Most cabins featured cellars used to preserve perishable food items. Typically, a house expanded with the family; the more children there were, the larger the house needed to be. Most importantly, a house served as the centre of community endeavours and social gatherings. Families would host religious services, including Sunday School, and would also entertain guests through song and dance.

Shiloh Baptist ChurchBlack Americans did not settle in one particular area of Alberta; rather, there were scattered settlements surrounding Edmonton. Blacks often travelled in large groups, making the journey easier through teamwork and cooperation. Henry Sneed, for example, visited Canada in 1910 to scout land in Western Canada before returning to Clearwater, Oklahoma. The following year, a group of 194 men, women, and children were ready to leave Oklahoma for Canada. A further 200 stayed behind, noting their progress and ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Eventually, Sneed’s party arrived in Edmonton. A 1911 census indicated that 208 Blacks were living in Edmonton and 72 more in Calgary. The Shiloh Baptist Church, established in 1910, in addition to hosting a variety of social and charitable groups, served the spiritual needs of Edmonton’s Black community.

Junkins School (circa 1915)Alberta’s rural Black communities were often situated in isolated, bush-covered areas. Many historians suggest that these locales were purposely chosen as a means of distancing the newly arrived Black settlers from the well-established White settlements. As recent victims of racism and discrimination, Alberta’s Black pioneers were understandably apprehensive about their new environment. Tony Payne and a group of 20 settlers founded the community of Junkins in 1908. The area was heavily wooded and swampy, making transportation difficult. Fortunately, many settlers began working on the railways as lines pushed through the area.

Unlike other rural Black settlements between 1908 and 1912, Campsie, a small settlement that developed near Barrhead, Alberta, had numerous well-established, non-Black homesteaders. Most Blacks in Campsie settled north of the local post office, establishing a very self-contained community.

Keystone, located southwest of Edmonton, was founded by the well‑travelled Bill Allen who, in 1910, recruited 35 families to settle in the area.


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