Throughout much of the 20th century, Calgary had a smaller Black Pioneer population than Edmonton did. In 1911, there were 72 Blacks living in Calgary; this Black community was made up of immigrants, most of whom were from Oklahoma. Despite its modest population, the Black community in Calgary was closely connected, sharing common customs and traditions and even geographical location.
By 1920, the majority of Black Calgarians lived in a residential area dubbed “Harlem,” located on 8 Avenue and 4 Street, close to the Canadian Pacific Railway station, where many of the men worked as porters and the land value was considerably lower. Some Black families also lived near the oil refinery in such working-class neighbourhoods as Riverside and Inglewood, and their confinement to certain areas of Calgary was a product of discriminatory practices. Calgary’s Whites did not want Blacks living in their communities or using nearby public facilities. To cope with this residential segregation, Blacks had to rely on each other for economic and social support. Families would gather for picnics in the park or to organize excursions to scenic Banff. During the holidays, Calgary’s tight-knit Black community gathered for Christmas concerts and New Year’s Eve festivities.
For several decades, Calgary’s Black community lacked its own institutions. Prior to 1947, the year in which Andrew Risby of Campsie established the Calgary branch of the Standard Church of America in the neighbourhood of Inglewood, religious and social events were frequently—although inconveniently—held at cramped family homes. For the first time, Black Calgarians had their own unique place of worship, a facility that could adequately host weddings and funerals. Utopia Hall was Calgary’s secular organization dedicated to hosting a multitude of cultural events.
Calgary’s Black community faced discrimination on a day-to-day daily basis. Although Alberta had not enacted segregation laws similar to those in force in the United States, Blacks were frequently denied service in Alberta hotels, restaurants, and other public facilities. Moreover, labour unions tried to keep Blacks out of certain jobs. Racial stereotyping was a common occurrence and reinforced by cartoons in newspapers which depicted Black characters as caricatures: as joyous, monkey-like creatures with exaggerated lips. Other malicious stereotypes included the depiction of Black men, because of perceived uncontrollable sexual urges stemming from their animalistic nature, as sexual threats to White women. In Calgary, this belief was proliferated by the media, and, in particular, by media coverage of an incident in which a Black man was arrested for allegedly assaulting a teenage girl. The fact that the girl had later confessed to fabricating the entire story, not surprisingly, received far less attention.
Certain members of the Black community did resort to crime during the 1940s and 1950s. Frustrated by limited opportunities and constant discrimination, a few turned to the “sporting life” and became involved in illegal activities such as gambling, drug trafficking, and prostitution. These individuals were associated with certain clubs and were not well regarded by the rest of the Black community, whose members, because they were unfairly targeted by law enforcement, were more inclined to adhere to the laws governing society. Whenever a Black individual committed a crime, the Black community as a whole would be blamed. This insinuated that Blacks tolerated illegal behaviour.
It would take decades before Calgary’s White community would learn to accept its Black neighbours. Racial tensions still existed in the early 1940s. A riot erupted in Calgary at a music club where the Black musician Lou Darby was playing. Prompted by a disagreement over a soldier’s girlfriend, the confrontation between that soldier and Darby’s brother escalated and eventually resulted in hundreds of soldiers' attacking Darby’s home. Police intervened, but the events of the night undoubtedly frightened the entire Black community.
After the Second World War, racist attitudes gradually began to be less tolerated by the public. The media began publishing accounts of acts of discrimination, and guilty parties were publicly chastised. In 1947, Calgary’s mayor promoted an educational program to end racial discrimination. This initiative was proudly supported by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Calgary Trades and Labour Council.
Calgary’s Black community also became more active in fighting discrimination. There had been previous activist organizations in the 1910s and 1920s, but they were short lived and did not have the full support of the Black community. Hesitant to speak out against discrimination, some Blacks believed that drawing attention to their plight would only exacerbate their situation. By the 1940s, Calgary’s Black community sought to create an active and reliable organization dedicated to improving race relations. The Alberta Association for the Advancement of Colored People (AAACP) was founded with the assistance of Philip Randolph, an important member of the American Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Stanley Grizzle, a porter and veteran of the Second World War, union organizer, and well-known activist from Toronto. The organization raised funds for scholarships, fought for employment equity, and demanded improved civil rights for Calgary’s Black community. The King and Proctor families were local vanguards for the organization, whose membership included a large number of teenagers and young adults. Although the AAACP floundered in the 1960s, its tireless efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1955, the Fair Employment Practices Act outlawed discrimination in the workforce.