Secular Black organizations in Alberta first emerged in the 1910s and 1920s. The Colored Protective Association, founded in 1910, organized social activities and fought organized discrimination. In Edmonton, the Universal Negro Improvement Association was dedicated to Black self-improvement, while the Negro Welfare Association of Alberta attempted to resolve the problem of unemployment among the Black community. Although most of these organizations floundered in the 1920s, their objectives would provide the impetus that allowed them to resurface in the 1940s with the onset of the Second World War. The war, despite all of its atrocities, created new economic opportunities for Alberta’s urban Black community. For example, Blacks made their first breakthrough in the provincial civil service when Ruth Heslep started a job as a stenographer.
Alberta’s urban Black community made considerable strides—economically, politically, and socially—during the 1940s. After the Second World War, the emerging awareness of Hitler’s atrocities resonated worldwide and created heightened sensitivity about the dangers of racism. Domestically, the press began to publish accounts of racism in Calgary and Edmonton, an interesting development, considering the tenor of earlier writing on Black immigration. Most notably, it acknowledged local individuals and organizations guilty of discriminatory practices. Local politicians became actively involved in an effort to combat discrimination, particularly in the workforce.
In 1947, Blacks in Calgary founded the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Colored People (AAACP). With jazz musician Melvin Crump as president, the AAACP played an instrumental role in the social and political life of Calgary’s Black community for over a decade. The AAACP was a voice for Calgary’s Blacks and it gave them an opportunity to confront discrimination head-on. Moreover, the AAACP created scholarships for Alberta’s young Blacks and, with the assistance of Philip Randolph, head of the American-based Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Stanley Grizzle, a union organizer and well-known advocate for equal rights, it fought to change the public’s stereotypical image of Alberta’s Black community.
The development of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s further perpetuated the idea that racism and discrimination were unacceptable in Canada. Canadians listened to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and observed the tactics employed by African-Americans, including boycotts, sit-ins, and Freedom Rides. By actively confronting racism and discrimination, American Blacks, during the 1950s and 1960s, regained their constitutional rights. These events led directly to increased sensitivity about the existence of discrimination in Canada. By passing several Acts aimed at curbing discrimination, and in particular, discrimination in the workplace, the Government of Alberta soon became actively involved in the process of raising awareness. In 1955, the provincial government passed theFair Employment Practices Act followed by theEqual Pay Act two years later. In 1966, a Human Rights Code was introduced. Criticism of the Acts focused on the government’s inability to enforce specific mandates and on the lack of punishment issued to individuals who violated them. Regardless, the new legislation was seen as a step in the right direction.
The passing of Alberta’s anti-discrimination laws opened more professional employment opportunities to Blacks in Alberta. Some still worked in traditional labour jobs; however, others were able to apply their skills in more specialized and better-paying jobs. In a short time, Blacks in Alberta became middle-level office managers, tradesmen, and heavy equipment operators. Black women became secretaries, nurses, and teachers. Varying sociopolitical factors during this era resulted in greater acceptance and increased integration of Alberta’s Black community.