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Alberta Online Encyclopedia


1913–1940

Several themes emerge when describing the Black experience in Alberta during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s including, most notably, urbanization. The isolated settlements founded by Black Americans in the first decade of the 20th century were desolate, bush-covered areas; this made farming a difficult and arduous process. However, such areas were conducive to the establishment of Black communities, with Amber Valley's being the largest and most prosperous (Amber Valley is located between the towns of thabasca and Lac la Biche in central Alberta).This being said, the isolation of these farm settlements also led to their eventual decline decades later.

Cropping at Junkins, 1920sDuring the 1900s and 1910s, farming in Amber Valley was largely subsistent, just as it was in other rural Black settlements across the province. The average amount of cropped land consisted of only 33 acres (13 hectares). Moreover, farmers faced the perennial onslaught of insects, poor drainage, and early frosts. Self-sufficiency was crucial in order to survive. Rural families relied on the wilderness to provide them with food and frequently consumed rabbits, prairie chickens, moose, and fish. Access to public health care was out of the question, so families quickly developed a plethora of home remedies.

Alberta’s Black pioneers were hard working, opportunistic, and industrious. Despite their challenges and hardships, 80 percent of Alberta’s Black homesteaders remained on their land long enough to receive their homestead patents. Research has shown that Black homesteaders had a higher success rate than did other prairie homesteaders, with just over half of the other homesteaders' remaining long enough to receive their title to the land.

Junkins picnic, 1915Black settlers believed fostering a sense of community was paramount to preserving and sharing their customs and traditions. Because they lived in such a desolate and isolated environment, maintaining social networks with other Blacks was essential. Social gatherings with friends and family provided a congenial atmosphere conducive to the sharing of stories, food, and laughter. In many of Alberta’s rural Black settlements, schools and churches were built to host such events. The famous Amber Valley picnic, a two- or three-day celebration attracting people within a 50-mile (80-kilometre) radius, was held in 1915. The picnic featured plenty of food, drink, and activities, including dancing, greased pig chases, foot races, and horse races. J.D. Edwards started the Amber Valley Baseball Team in 1926. The team was well known throughout northern and central Alberta for its skill and ability; however, more importantly, members of the team actively promoted community solidarity and pride.

Katherine Henderson at graduation, 1947.Education was limited in Alberta’s rural settlements, with only modest one-room schoolhouses providing a basic education. Those interested in attaining a higher education such as a high school diploma or post-secondary education had to move to larger towns or cities. Upon completing their education, and because the city provided better employment opportunities for individuals with a formal education, young adults seldom returned to their farming community.

Agnes Leffler atop a tractor, 1930sIn time, some Black farmers, particularly those living in Amber Valley, were able to move beyond the subsistent farming stage, and they soon began raising cattle and exporting grain. The purchase of mechanized farm equipment was another considerable step in increasing agricultural productivity and efficiency. Amber Valley survived the Great Depression, but the Second World War took a considerable toll on the local population. During the 1940s, a considerable number of young men and women moved to the city in search of better wages. Only a handful of Black families still live in the Amber Valley area.


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