When Black immigrants from Oklahoma began arriving in Alberta during the 1900s, their eventual destination was the city of Edmonton. Although a few individuals chose Maidstone, Saskatchewan as their final stop, records from the Canadian Border Crossing Services in Emerson, Manitoba listed Edmonton as the final destination for all travellers. Many who arrived in Edmonton planned to stay only a few days until they were approved for a homestead. However, several families decided to stay and find immediate employment. A 1911 census indicates that there were 208 Blacks living in Edmonton and 72 Blacks in Calgary. Several Black immigrants settled in smaller urban communities in Athabasca, Medicine Hat, Peace River, Drumheller, Lethbridge, Leduc, Airdrie, and Red Deer. These were typically single men looking for work.
Historically, Edmonton developed a notorious reputation for blatant discrimination and racism. Most notably, Edmontonians’ feelings towards the arrival of Black Americans were visibly expressed in their concerted efforts at eradicating Black immigration. Businesses, politicians, and newspaper editorialists protested against Black immigration. The Edmonton Journal, for example, emphatically stated to all that “we want no dark spots in Alberta.” In The University Magazine, J.S. Woodsworth asked: “Are we in Canada to intermarry and become a mongrel race?”
In 1911, the Edmonton Board of Trade organized a petition to stop the immigration altogether. It was signed by about 3,000 Edmontonians, a significantly high number considering Edmonton had a population of only 25,000. The various protests pressured the Government of Canada to enact immediate measures directly aimed at halting Black immigration. In response, the federal government implemented informal measures to discourage Black Americans’ migration into Canada. Its actions were largely successful. By 1912, Black immigration into Edmonton and other areas of Alberta had slowed to a trickle.
Alberta’s urban Black population, however, continued to increase. Rural settlers moved to Alberta’s larger cities in search of more reliable work. In 1911, only 30 percent of the Black population lived in Alberta’s cities; however, this statistic would grow substantially in the years to come. In fact, by 1971, 80 percent of the Black population resided in Alberta’s urban centres.
Discrimination and racism were far more prevalent in the city. While there were no official segregation laws, Whites—rather arbitrarily—tended to decide for themselves whether to accept Blacks' living in their community. For example, numerous business owners would refuse to offer work to any Black man or woman. Members of the Black community attempted to establish their own businesses in order to avoid discriminatory practices.
Blatant discriminatory practices meant that job opportunities open to Blacks were very limited. Men often found work as unskilled labourers and were required to complete backbreaking and dangerous tasks in return for a very modest wage. Women tended to work in the service industry and as domestic servants. In Edmonton, there were several Black entrepreneurs: their restaurants, boarding houses, barbershops, clubs, and other businesses were all frequented by a mixed clientele. Urban Blacks also found work as professional athletes and musicians.
By the Second World War, the population of Alberta’s rural Black communities decreased significantly. The few families and individuals who chose to remain continued a lifestyle based principally on agriculture. After the war, however, increasing numbers of Black citizens were able to attain a higher education, and discriminatory practices in the workforce were on the decline. Consequently, Black employment became more varied as members of the community found careers as teachers, secretaries, skilled tradespeople, and entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, Alberta’s urban Black communities were vibrant and growing in size almost daily. In the 1960s and 1970s, Black immigrants from the West Indies started to outnumber the indigenous Blacks living in Canada. However, the descendants of Canadian Black pioneers still maintain a vital community and a distinct culture in major urban centres across Canada.