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Labour

Paving Jasper Avenue, 1930’s In contrast with its Calgary counterpart, Edmonton’s Black community tended to have access to a more diverse labour market. The few Black men and women who did not work in construction and meat-packing jobs started their own local businesses: two pool halls, four family-run cafés, one delivery service, one hotel, four boarding houses, and two grocery stores were all owned by Black entrepreneurs. These businesses served both a White and a Black clientele. Eight members of the Black community worked as teachers, a tradition continued by Black pioneer descendants. During the 1920s and 1930s, Edmonton was also served by a Black doctor.

Driving pigs to slaughter It was important to establish entrepreneurships because many businesses refused to hire Black workers. White business owners were fearful that Black workers would drive away their White clientele. The Edmonton Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union lobbied to restrict labour in hotels to Whites only. Black women were denied admittance to nurse training programs. Not surprisingly, Black people were assigned to dangerous and backbreaking tasks—work that no one else wanted. Black men worked on the railroads, in coal mines, in meat-packing plants, and in slaughterhouses.

The arts consistently thrived within Alberta’s Black community. Black pioneers shared a love for music, and their passion for song goes back to the time of slavery, when plantation workers would sing songs while they toiled in the field. Music helped pass the time and fostered a sense of identity on the plantation. Many Blacks saw music as merely a leisure activity; however, a few talented individuals were able to generate a supplementary income by using their musical ability to entertain crowds. Black entertainers made an important contribution to the music scene in Edmonton, and bands like the Henderson Quartet, the Three E’s, Tiger Ace and his Knights, and Jesse Jones and the Harlem Aces, delighted the audiences around the city. One of Edmonton's most famous artists was “Big” Miller, who joined the jazz scene in 1970.

Black Edmontonians were also able to gain considerable prestige in professional sports, and particularly in boxing. Joe “Dad” Cotton, a former slave from the United States, had been a heavyweight division prizefighter before moving up to Edmonton in 1912, at which time he opened a boxing club, provided opportunities to Black boxers, and worked as a boxing referee. Consequently, Edmonton turned out some a number of champion boxers, including “Flash” Bailey, a national champion in the flyweight division; Bennie Geary, the welterweight champion of Western Canada; and Vern Escoe, the Canadian champion in the heavyweight division. Edmonton's Black community also turned out such other athletes as Jesse Jones, a track and field champion who taught at Funnell School in Keystone. Many Black men gained prestige playing football for the Edmonton Eskimos.

Following the Second World War, employment opportunities grew exponentially. Increasingly, Black men and women were able to secure jobs outside the labour and service industries. Among Edmonton's Blacks, such jobs were less popular than professional careers, which included work in politics and the civil service. Today, the descendants of Edmonton’s Black pioneers are making diverse professional contributions as teachers, lawyers, athletes, musicians, authors, activists, as well as in many other fields.


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