Many of the Black settlers who migrated to Alberta from the United States in the early 20th century desperately wanted to escape the racism and discrimination so prevalent in the American South. Moreover, the prospect of inexpensive land on which to homestead was appealing.
Most of these immigrants settled in rural enclaves in northern Alberta. There were four main Black communities in rural Alberta: Amber Valley, Keystone, Junkins, and Campsie. These were all largely Black settlements with the exception of Campsie, which featured a sizeable White population.
Amber Valley, located west of the town of Athabasca, was first settled by Black families in 1910, and its population eventually peaked at 350 during the 1930s. Keystone, 50 miles (80 kilometres) southwest of Leduc and known today as Breton, was settled in 1909; the 150 to 200 Black settlers who eventually lived there would make it the province’s second-largest rural Black community.
Junkins and Campsie were the smallest settlements. Junkins, 81 miles (130 kilometres) west of Edmonton, was established in 1908 by Tony Payne and a group of roughly 20 settlers. Campsie, later known as Barrhead, was settled in 1910 and was home to a Black population of approximately 50.
Alberta’s rural Black settlements formed an unintentional circle around the city of Edmonton. Despite their geographical proximity, these settlements were isolated, largely due to the lack of reliable transportation and roads. Consequently, trips to and from Edmonton for supplies were difficult and time consuming. For example, a wagon trek from Amber Valley to Edmonton, a distance of some 120 miles (190 kilometres), could take weeks. Historians have speculated on the possible reasons Black settlers formed communities in such remote areas. Having experienced first-hand discrimination and hostility at the Canadian border, Black settlers were wary of White society. By forming communities of their own, they could share their traditions and customs while avoiding confrontation with Alberta’s White population. It is also likely that because they arrived in such large groups and wanted to stay together, Black settlers could find large tracts of unsettled land only in these more remote, uninhabited areas, where land was poorly suited to farming.
Blacks living in rural Alberta faced challenges different from those faced by their urban counterparts. The homesteaders’ log cabins were often draughty. Most Black Americans had difficulty adapting to the harsh winters of the Albertan landscape. Also, the long winters made finding food more challenging. Unable to cope with their new surroundings, some Black pioneers and their families returned to the United States. Others who stayed took sick and died because they could not adapt to the cold. The Black settlers who remained learned to rely on each other and developed a reliable network of cooperation. The rural Black communities' isolation explains, at least in part, the reasons racial discrimination was less of an issue than in urban areas: homesteaders, whether Black or White, faced similar challenges and had to rely on the generosity of others in the community.
Farming on Alberta’s homesteads was often a difficult and frustrating experience. Alberta’s Black settlers chose bush-covered, swampy terrain that made the land difficult to clear. Thus, growing crops was a backbreaking and time-consuming commitment that often yielded poor results. Settlers usually had to rely on other forms of employment to support their families; some men worked in rural areas as freighters, loggers, and railroad construction workers. Others did seasonal work as general labourers in nearby towns. Some were more fortunate: they were able to secure an education or to allocate sufficient funds to start a small business. In time, Blacks became teachers, postmasters, and small businesses owners.
Gradually, the population of these communities began to diminish. The 1920s witnessed an agricultural depression that prompted some families to leave. Also, many of the young came of age and sought better opportunities in the city. Few of the rural communities survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. Increasing mechanization of farming meant that poorer farmers could not afford the farm equipment needed to compete in the changing face of agriculture; they had to sell their farms and move to the cities.
Amber Valley, the largest Black settlement in Alberta, managed to thrive despite these hardships, and it maintained a sizeable Black population throughout the 1940s. Only a handful of the Black pioneers’ descendants still live in these rural settlements today.