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Urbanization

Edmonton's Jasper Avenue, 1930sA census conducted in 1921 stated that population figures in rural Black settlements were already on the decline. These numbers continued to dwindle during the economic recessions of the 1920s and 1930s. A lack of employment opportunities and of financial stability forced many Black settlers to choose Alberta’s larger urban centres as their home.

Population statistics indicated that, by as early as 1912, there was a steady increase in the number of Blacks residing in cities. According to the Census of Canada, there were 208 Blacks living in Edmonton in 1911, three times as many as in Calgary. Edmonton’s Blacks could be described as a working-class community. With minimal education, Blacks worked largely serving the needs of the White community. For instance, many within the Black community became railway porters, who, although they made a decent wage, often worked 16 hours a day and spent days, if not weeks, away from their families.

During this time period, White society assumed that the role of the Black man or woman was to serve and, largely, this is the very role Blacks occupied in the urban labour market. A 1927 listing of 30 Black individuals living in Calgary included 23 porters, one barber, one club owner, three janitors, and two ranchers. It appears that Calgary’s Black labour market, on the other hand, relied substantially on the railway porter industry while Edmonton’s was more diverse and entrepreneurial. Edmonton’s Black labour market included families operating cafés, small restaurants, hotels, and real estate. Other Blacks were employed in construction. Black businesses in Edmonton were not entirely dependent on Black clientele as the members of the White community frequented businesses operated by Black families.

Despite the blatant discrimination that existed in Calgary and Edmonton, some families succeeded in attaining financial stability through their own entrepreneurial endeavours. Others were not so fortunate and became entangled into the emerging “sporting life", a term often used to describe criminal activity associated with drug use, prostitution, and gambling. During this time, an entire sub-culture developed in certain areas of Edmonton and Calgary, imitating Black subcultures in larger American cities. This divided the local Black community into two groups: those who made an honest living through hard work and those who became entrenched in criminal activities.

Athletics were another important aspect of the urban Black experience. In 1912, Joe “Dad” Cotton opened a boxing club in Edmonton and attained considerable success over the years. Jesse Jones of Edmonton was a nationally recognized track and field star during the 1920s. In a world of limited opportunities, athletics granted several Blacks the chance to gain respect and recognition in a society marred by discrimination.

Any description of the urban Black experience during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s must include discussion of discrimination and racism. In all aspects of life, Edmonton and Calgary’s Black communities faced continual prejudice. Hospitals refused to admit Black nurses to training programs; some landlords refused to accept Blacks as tenants; and certain swimming pools and pool halls would refuse Blacks entry. Regardless of their qualifications, Blacks also had problems finding work because employers would turn them away based on skin colour. The Victoria Park district of Calgary initiated typical actions against the Black community: residents circulated a petition demanding that Blacks be prevented from residing in the area. Although the petition was denied, Blacks were slowly segregated into particular urban districts where land value was considerably lower.

Frank and Kenneth Leffler. 13 June 1948Those who worked in Edmonton and Calgary were instructed to follow Booker T. Washington’s model of salvation through hard work. A Black American scholar, Washington argued that Black Americans would, by demonstrating their productivity and reliability in the workforce, earn the respect of the White community. Many who followed Washington’s basic principles were able to establish themselves in the city and soon developed a keen interest in pursuing other employment opportunities. In fact, some members of Alberta’s Black community became successful teachers, ministers, and musicians. Others operated profitable businesses. Still, not everyone found success in Alberta, regardless of whether he or she was working in the city or farming in the countryside. In fact, from 1921 to 1951, the number of Blacks in Alberta declined from 1,048 to 702. Many returned to the United States disappointed with their stay in Canada. Some found the climate weather incredibly harsh, while others faced a continual barrage of discrimination and racism. Those Blacks who returned to the United States reflected on their stay in Canada and concluded that they were better off down south where they could receive better wages in a more moderate climate. Although those who remained in Canada would continue to face a variety of challenges, they sought to tackle each obstacle together by developing and fostering the urban Black community.


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